TIME Mental Health/Psychology

What 28-Years of Solitary Confinement Does to the Mind

Alone prisonner
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One Louisiana prisoner may get out of solitary confinement after nearly 30 years

Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, 59, has spent the last 28 consecutive years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but a prison warden says he may be released to the general inmate population.

Whitmore reportedly spends 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. “We will get him out,” Warden Burl Cain, warden of the prison, told the Medill Justice Project, a group that investigates potentially wrongful convictions. “We’d rather him out. I need his cell. I’ve got some young people, predators, that need to be in that cell. When I can conclude he’s not going to cause me the blues, then he can come out of the cell.” Whitmore is in prison for second-degree murder.

According to the Medill Justice Project, Whitmore’s eyesight has deteriorated and he has hypertension. And if he’s similar to other cases of prisoners in solitary confinement, his health and mental health have likely deteriorated in other ways, too.

“Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. By doing things we learn who we are and we learn our worth as a person. The two things solitary confinement does is make people solitary and idle,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor of psychiatry at the Wright Institute in Berkeley California, who has spent over 40 years interviewing thousands of solitary confinement prisoners.

Though the impact of solitary confinement can differ person to person, there are some basic symptoms that are particularly widespread among inmates. Prisoners of long-term confinement—which Kupers says that’s about three months, though for some effects start to appear much sooner—often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking, as well as anger and compulsive actions, like pacing or repeatedly cleaning the cell. Basic cognitive functions are also dulled. “I have prisoners tell me they quit reading, which is one of the only things you can sometimes do,” says Kupers. “I ask why, and they say it’s because they can’t remember what they read three pages before.”

Prisoners in solitary confinement often develop confusion over when to be alert and when to sleep. In a report, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a consultant in criminal cases writes: “[Solitary confinement prisoners] often find themselves incapable of resisting their bed during the day—incapable of resisting the paralyzing effect of their stupor—and yet incapable of any restful sleep at night. The lack of meaningful activity is further compounded by the effect of continual exposure to artificial light and diminished opportunity to experience natural daylight.”

Grassian tells TIME that without stimulation, people’s brains will move toward stupor and delirium—and often people won’t recover from it.

Even when prisoners are let out of solitary confinement, Grassian says, they are so overwhelmed by stimulus that they become incapable of tolerating their new environment and have trouble integrating back into the general population. Their brain waves jump and they become highly reactive. “I’ve talked to many of these prisoners who say it’s hellish for them,” says Grassian. “The often end up spending a tremendous amount of time in their cell.”

Whether Whitmore will be released into the general prison population remains uncertain but the fact that he has been attempting to take legal action against the prison may work in his mental favor, since Grassian says thinkers tend to do better.

“People that can use their minds tend to do relatively better,” he says. “They are able to maintain a degree of stimulation internally.”

And that’s all many can rely on.

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