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What 43 Years of Solitary Confinement Does to the Mind

3 minute read

Albert Woodfox, currently the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the United States, will be released from prison in the coming days.

Woodfox is the last of the “Angola Three,” convicted on dubious grounds of killing a guard during prison riots at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La. in 1972, to be released; Robert King and Herman Wallace, who both served time in solitary confinement while imprisoned, were both released in 2013.

But Woodfox was held in solitary the longest of the three; for 43 years he has been kept in virtual isolation, his lawyer has said. Although the facts of the case are heavily contested, the adverse health effects of solitary confinement are less so. Amnesty International and the United Nations have both deemed Woodfox’s imprisonment “inhumane.”

In a July 2014 article, TIME’s Alexandra Sifferlin reported on the impact decades of solitary confinement — such as that imposed on Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, another Angola inmate in solitary confinement — might have on a patient’s brain:

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 [Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor of psychiatry at the Wright Institute in Berkeley California] says is 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.

In many states, solitary confinement takes the form of 23 hours in the cell with no TV, radio, books, music, magazines, or any other distractions. Suicide rates are disproportionately high among those in solitary confinement, and those in solitary confinement who are eventually released are more likely reoffend. 80,000 of the approximately 2.3 million incarcerated people in America are in solitary confinement or some other form of segregated housing.

Read next: Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue

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