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What Are the Negative Effects of Solitary Confinement?

Mental health is a primary concern regarding solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement experiments have been conducted on apes, and have revealed increased psychological problems with isolation.
Solitary confinement may lead to a loss of social skills.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 April 2014
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Solitary confinement is a method of imprisonment that isolates a prisoner from general interaction with others. Often used in prison settings, long-term solitary confinement is a controversial issue on many fronts. Some experts believe that the negative effects of solitary confinement can do lasting and serious harm to targeted individuals; critics may go so far as to refer to extended confinement as a form of torture. Some of the negative effects of solitary confinement may include exacerbation of existing mental problems, development of new mental problems, and a decreasing ability to assimilate into prison or outside society.

One of the most commonly cited negative effects of solitary confinement is the exacerbation of mental health issues. Prisoners subjected to long-term confinement are often incarcerated in high security prisons as a result of convictions for extremely serious or particularly violent crimes. Not surprisingly, the instance of mental health issues among this population is consistently high. Some studies have suggested that depriving people with existing mental health issues from social contact, or even from basic cognitive stimulus such as reading, can significantly increase symptoms of depression, anxiety, rage, and other mental conditions.

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In addition to making existing problems worse, some experts believe that solitary confinement can create mental health issues in previously stable individuals. By nature, human beings are highly social creatures; normal lives are conducted on an intensely social level with high priority placed on interactions between family members, friends, and romantic partners. Confinement experiments on other social animals, such as apes, have consistently shown a high correlation between the development of severe psychological problems and social deprivation. Among human prisoners, some experts cite dramatic increases in levels of depression, panic disorders, and suicidal tendencies following long bouts of confinement.

Some studies have also suggested that one of the most significant negative effects of solitary confinement is a loss of social skills. After a long confinement, some individuals may lose the ability to communicate effectively, pick up on social cues, or adapt to any type of society. Since confinement is often used as a tool to reduce prison violence and danger, this particular issue becomes a critical talking point in the controversy over confinement policies: if inmates are actually made less able to adapt to prison life through confinement, some experts suggest the tactic may do far more harm than good.

The negative effects of solitary confinement are not universally agreed upon by all experts. Moreover, since people may have very different psychological reactions to stimuli, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the situation despite considerable research. Unfortunately, many modern prison systems are overwhelmed with crowding and violence issues, leaving prison officials with limited means to deal with serious inmate problems. Despite the negative effects of solitary confinement, the tactic is likely to see continued use until a practical, less damaging solution is discovered.

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