Neuroscientists on Solitary Confinement: End It Now

Can brain science plus personal narrative drive policy? The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting heard from a panel of scientists and a former prisoner on why they hope to abolish prisons’ use of solitary confinement.

Can the combination of brain science and personal narrative drive policy? A packed session at last week’s annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego heard from a panel of scientists and a former prisoner on their hopes of abolishing prisons’ use of solitary confinement, Scientific American reports. According to scientists speaking at the conference session, the social isolation and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement can have traumatic effects on the brain, many of which may be irreversible. Prolonged social isolation can exact severe physical, emotional and cognitive consequences. It is associated with a 26 percent increased risk of premature death, largely stemming from an out of control stress response that results in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation. Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of suicide. “We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who was on the panel.

Several states have passed legislation limiting who can be in solitary confinement, including mentally ill and juvenile offenders, and for how long. The United Nations recommends banning solitary confinement for more than 15 days, saying any longer constitutes torture. One of the panelists was Robert King, one of Louisiana’s “Angola Three” who spent 29 years in solitary. “People want to know whether or not I have psychological problems, whether or not I’m crazy — ‘How did you not go insane?’” King told the audience. “I look at them and I tell them, ‘I did not tell you I was not insane.’ I don’t mean I was psychotic or anything like that, but being placed in a six by nine by 12–foot cell for 23 hours a day, no matter how you appear on the outside, you are not sane.”