Prison isolation is likely so hard for inmates because people are sociable creatures. Yet, isolation is still used in prisons ('supermax prisons'), in mental hospitals, but also as a strategy to educate children, given that some parents lock their kids in their room.

Why are those isolations in use? Do they have beneficial effects on prisoners or psychiatric patients? Does it treat their symptoms or criminal traits?


Solitary confinement serves no therapeutic purpose. Two uses of solitary confinement are generally acknowledged, namely as safety measure to protect the individual from themselves or to protect others from harm, or as a measure of discipline (that is, punishment).

Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression (Haney, 2003). In experimental subjects hallucinations have been reported too (source: Frontline).

To the question why these psychological effects happen there is not much known, as research into the topic is obviously deemed not ethical, and the use of it in correctional facilities and psychiatric wards is scrutinized. In fact, its use in psychiatric environments is starting to decline (source: APA).

However, some guesses might be made on the effects of solitary confinement on the brain. Hallucinations may be caused by the fact that sensory perception is accustomed to dealing with a large quantity of information. In fact, one of the major goals of the higher sensory centers is the filtering of irrelevant information rather than processing all of it. When sensory input is deprived, the brain starts to make up things, just as deaf people may develop tinnitus and blind people may see phosphenes and other visual hallucinations (source: BBC Future). The psychological deficits may be sought in the fact that we derive meaning from our emotional states largely through contact with others. Human emotions are thought to have evolved because they aided co-operation among our early ancestors who benefited from living in groups. With no one to mediate our feelings or to determine their appropriateness, the sense of self becomes distorted and the sense of reality disintegrates (source: BBC Future).

- Haney, Crime & Delinquency (2003); 49(1): 124-56

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ About the sensory deprivation point, I know that. It was found particularly true in Syrian prisons where the prisoners were deprived of light..and lived in the dark cell as their sentence. However, I know that there is more research into the physical aspect of isolation. Can you be traumatized by physical isolation? Why time feels to pass slowly inside and why some prisoners feel as though they are about to crack under pressure and sometimes start self-inflicting themselves. Depression and Anxiety disorder could be triggered by many things.. but I want to know the specific effects $\endgroup$ – Dan Frman Aug 19 '16 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Many interesting questions @DanFrman. There are some questions (and answers) about time perception already. Maybe they can shine some light on the matter. Regarding the other questions, perhaps you can ask them in follow up posts. Be sure to provide enough context and be specific about what you want to know. Otherwise people have to guess ;) $\endgroup$ – Robin Kramer Aug 19 '16 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ Let me be more specific. When a prison puts a prisoner in solitary confinement. What does it try to achieve when he gets out? Do they expect him to feel that time passes slowly and cause a discomfort? or do they know that he will go through phases of stress or depression. what exactly happens behind those isolation chambers in the prisoners mind? $\endgroup$ – Dan Frman Aug 19 '16 at 18:14
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So, if I understand you correctly, you want to know why being in solitary is a punishment, i.e. why people are not comfortable with being alone? If so, you can make another post asking that more specifically. I believe the current post already has an incredibly interesting answer, and a follow up on the punishment may only increase our understanding (and a neat organization of this website's content). $\endgroup$ – Robin Kramer Aug 19 '16 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think solitary confinement is punishment but certainly compartmentalization is. The purpose of putting people in "boxes"(prison) is to control them or make them more malleable to persuasion and suggestion. Solitary confinement defeats that entire purpose and in fact may open the mind to dramatic and creative effect. This is certainly what happened to the US POW's in Vietnam where ultimately they became a weapon that was used in a highly effective manner against the North Vietnamese. (See Operation Linebacker.) $\endgroup$ – Doctor Zhivago Aug 20 '16 at 1:17

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.