Loyola University Chicago

School of Law

Solitary confinement has mental, physical consequences

This past summer, Senator Dick Durbin held the first-ever hearing on the use of solitary confinement before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. Exoneree Anthony Graves, who spent 10 years in solitary confinement, testified before the subcommittee. Mr. Graves was released from death row in Texas after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. For 10 years, Mr. Graves lived in a 8x12 cell with a steel toilet connected to a steel sink, completely devoid of contact from another human being. He testified that inmates held in solitary confinement become dehumanized, desensitized, and emotionally bankrupt. Other exonerees submitted testimony, including Life After Innocence’s first female client Julie Rae Harper, who describes guards playing a tape recording of a screaming woman on repeat while she attempted to sleep.

An inmate held in solitary confinement is kept in his or her small cell for at least 23 hours a day, allowed three showers a week, and served three meals per day. The sound of screaming is often unrelenting. 56% of Illinois inmates have experienced solitary confinement and as many as 80,000 of the nation’s 2.3 million inmates are currently experiencing long-term solitary confinement. This number likely includes inmates who were falsely convicted or who are awaiting trial for crimes they did not commit.

Many inmates held in solitary confinement suffer from mental illness, but even more will suffer from mental, physical, and psychological disorders when they leave these conditions. According to experts, the lack of human contact. Inmates experience severe insomnia, memory loss, hypertension, deteriorating eyesight resulting from depravation of natural light and confinement that obstructs vision, joint problems caused by vitamin D deficiency and lack of exercise, problems with balance, and chronic asthma. When they are released from solitary confinement, most continue to suffer from sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, phobias, impaired memory, and problems with social interaction.

According to a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur, prisoners should not be held in these conditions for more than 15 days in a row. But in US prisons, it is common for inmates to be kept in solitary confinement for much longer. An unknown number of inmates have spent years, and sometimes decades, in this isolation. This includes more than 500 inmates currently held in California’s Pelican Bay state prison, who have been held for ten years or more. Most inmates held in solitary confinement have committed nonviolent offenses, such as breaking a prison rule, or have been branded “high risk” by prison guards. Others, including many Life After Innocence clients, entered solitary confinement as a result of the crime they were convicted of, a crime they did not commit.