A SENSE OF SOLITARY
No one should ever have to experience solitary confinement first-hand. But understanding what it’s like can help to prove why it’s so important to abolish it.
STORIES OF SURVIVAL
Beyond The Box: Stories of Survival is a blog series produced by Unlock The Box that features in-depth, true stories of survival, hope, and resiliency in the face of unspeakable torture. Our featured survivors share their stories in the hope that their experiences will shed light on the urgency of eradicating solitary confinement in the United States. Take a few moments to bear witness to the truths of our survivors by reading their stories and hearing their voices.
LIFE IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
Survivors of solitary confinement and people currently being held in isolation shared some of the more distressing facts about living in solitary confinement. Click on the buttons below to gain an understanding of some of the most common practices associated with living under these torturous conditions.
Solitary Watch’s Voices from Solitary series features real-life accounts of life in isolation, written by people in solitary confinement. These accounts illuminate not only the effects of solitary, but the human beings who endure these torturous conditions.
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker‘s writing has been previously published on Solitary Watch (here and here); was selected for inclusion in our 2016 anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place; and received a grant from our Solitary Confinement Reporting […]
Born and raised outside of Washington, DC, Chris Wilson is a formerly incarcerated author, artist, advocate, and entrepreneur. At the age of 17, Wilson was sentenced to life in prison, and, over the next 16 years, spent over 117 days in solitary […]
In May 2021, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania became the first jurisdiction in the United States to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement by a referendum of the county’s voters, following years of abuse allegations and multiple […]
Neuroscientists have found that long term isolation, in and of itself, is extremely damaging to the brain. Social and sensory deprivation can lead to damage to the brain’s hippocampus, resulting in loss of memory, cognitive impairments, and depression, which in turn results in further brain cell death. The sensory deprivation and natural light deprivation can also cause psychosis and other harm. People who are placed in solitary confinement, for even very short periods of time, are subject to significant mental anguish and deterioration. Common symptoms include panic attacks, paranoia, social withdrawal, sensitivities to sound, and other external stimuli. 
Increased risk of self harm, from cutting to amputation to suicide, have long been associated with solitary confinement. While in isolation, adverse psychological effects of sensory deprivation can lead to psychosis, which can lead to self-harm. These effects remain with people long after they are released from solitary. Research suggests that once released, solitary survivors are 78% more likely to commit suicide within a year of their release than those not exposed to isolation. 
The experience of solitary confinement is especially damaging to youth, 25 and under, because their brains are still developing. The psychological stress of being in solitary confinement can inhibit parts of the brain like the pre-frontal cortex from growing and cause irreversible harm. Restricted from social interaction and educational opportunities, youth exposed to solitary have a difficult time adjusting to life after release, and are more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide than those not exposed. One extensive study found that 60% of all incarcerated youth suicides are committed by those who either are or have been in solitary confinement. 
Solitary confinement is linked to decrease in physical and mental health. In addition to psychological effects, solitary is associated with heart disease as well as increased risk of death even after release from prison, including by suicide and overdose. One study reported that it’s associated with a 26% increase in premature death due to increased cortisol levels, higher blood pressure, and inflammation. 
Solitary confinement creates barriers to physical and mental healthcare. In many cases, clinical assessments are performed through bars or solid metal doors, which greatly impedes clinicians’ ability to physically assess and even communicate with patients. Patients are often restricted from inpatient psychiatric treatment. Moreover, life-threatening medical emergencies easily go undetected due to isolation, sometimes resulting in serious harm or even death.
Solitary confinement can cause long-term mental and physical harm, including after people are released from prison and jail and including premature death. Also, as Dr. Craig Haney, an expert on solitary confinement, pointed out in Congressional Testimony, people placed in long-term isolation can develop long lasting social pathologies as a result of social deprivation. People can lose their sense of self, become unable to connect to reality, or have difficulty controlling their behavior. People can develop overwhelming anxiety about social interaction. In most cases, people released from solitary are not provided with transitional services to help them adjust after isolation, further exacerbating the problem. 
What’s it like to spend almost every hour of the day in a cell measuring 6×9 feet for days, weeks, months or even years? Johnny Perez and Dolores Canales, members of the Unlock the Box Steering Committee, collaborated with The Guardian, Solitary Watch, and other survivors of solitary to create “6×9: A Virtual Reality Experience,” which places you inside a U.S. solitary confinement cell as voices describe what it’s like to live in complete isolation. A mobile app allows you to fully experience ”6×9” on your own, with or without a VR viewer. If you don’t have a smartphone, scroll down to watch the 360° video.
Download the app for the full virtual experience:
Our colleagues at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth collaborated with Johnny Perez, a member of our Steering Committee, and Laura Nicks, a member of our state campaign partner, DecARcerate Arkansas, to create this virtual experience illustrating what it’s like to be a young person enduring the torture of solitary confinement.