Solitary Confinement Is Known Torture

Debating the Obvious

When people are so conditioned to being deceived by those in power that they can’t see or accept the obvious, you know they’re the victims of a highly effective system of mass brainwashing. The whole debate over whether solitary confinement in U.S. prisons amounts to torture is a case in point.

As a victim of solitary confinement for nearly two decades, I have extensive experience with the condition and have written on the subject for a number of years.1 Only recently has the general public been prompted to take notice of the issue on a broad scale—this as a result of thousands of California prisoners going on hunger strikes for weeks during 2011. One of the main issues they were protesting was the long-term abuse of solitary confinement, especially at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

The resultant waves of public opposition to solitary and its obviously torturous and mentally injurious effects, has prompted officials to come forward with rationalizations and asinine debates over whether solitary constitutes torture.

Officials played the same games to downplay and rationalize the torture of Arab detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, etc., during the scandal that followed wide exposure of photographs, showing U.S. soldiers torturing and abusing detained Arabs in 2004.

Those “debates” involved the U.S. Attorney General and Justice Department lawyers, under George W. Bush, maneuvering to redefine “torture,” so that such obvious and well-recognized methods of torture as water-boarding, electroshock and all manner of psycho-emotional torment were deemed something other than torture.

During 2009, those tortures “legalized” by the Bush administration were acknowledged to be torture and formally banned by the Obama administration, whereupon the Bush torture memos were released for public scrutiny. However, all the lawyers and military and CIA interrogators who participated in those tortures were granted immunity from prosecution, even though Lawrence Wilkinson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, testified before Congress that many detainees were outright murdered by the military as a result of being shot, beaten, suffocated or drowned. But everyone knew long before all this that what was going on was torture. Just like everyone knows it about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. To those in power it just boils down to playing the game of denial and evasion, to divert public outrage and treat the masses as if they are stupid children, while officials’ crimes and their victims’ sufferings continue.

As this article is intended to demonstrate, that solitary confinement constitutes torture is simply not debatable. Indeed, officials know it’s torture and use it deliberately for this purpose.

Outlawed yesterday

One of the U.S. Supreme Court’s favorite principles to invoke in determining whether particular conduct violates the Constitution, is whether that conduct conforms to the “evolving standards of decency of a maturing society.” In fact the courts tend to rationalize and downplay such horrendous historical practices as chattel slavery, lynching, oppression of women, etc. on grounds that they reflected Amerika at its less mature stages.

If that is true, then conduct deemed heinous and offensive over a century ago, is certainly even more heinous and offensive in today’s more “mature” Amerika.

In this context, solitary confinement was deemed over a century ago to be not only an appalling form of torture but also terrorism. Its use prompted mass protest movements across Europe and Amerika. In Amerika the earliest solitary confinement was implemented in the 1790s at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, where prisoners were confined in total isolation with only a bible. Under these conditions they were expected to rehabilitate themselves making penance for their crimes, from which came the name “penitentiary.” The condition was then institutionalized in Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1830s.

However, the Supreme Court found by the late 1800s that solitary confinement produced a different result, which generated mass protests, resulting in reversing laws that authorized it. As the Court stated, even the laws that authorized solitary recognized it to be a particularly severe and terrorizing condition. In overruling one such law and recognizing the destructive and torturous effects of solitary, the Court observed:

“A considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal were not reformed, and in many cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of subsequent service to the community. It became evident that some changes must be made in the system… and it is within the memory of many persons interested in prison discipline that some thirty or forty years ago the whole subject attracted the general public attention, and its main feature of solitary confinement was found to be too severe….

“The statute is very pertinent to the case before us, as showing, first, what was understood by solitary confinement at that day, and, second, that it was considered as an additional punishment of such a severe kind that it is spoken of in the preamble as ‘a further terror and peculiar mark of infamy’ to be added to the punishment of death. In Great Britain, as in other countries, public sentiment revolted against this severity, and by the Statute of 6 and 7 William IV. Chapter 3, the additional punishment of solitary confinement was repealed.”2

This U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1890 overruled laws authorizing solitary as cruel and unusual punishment.

Among those involved in the 1800s mass protest movements against solitary confinement, which the court mentions, were such prominent writers and thinkers as Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin. Both toured the Philadelphia Penitentiary, and in the 1840s Dickens wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immensely worse than any torture of the body.”3 A century later, in 1940, the Supreme Court referred to “solitary confinement” as one of the techniques of “physical and mental torture” on a par with “[t]he rack, the thumbscrew” and “the wheel,” used by governments to coerce confessions.4 It also recognized those most frequently targeted with such torture “have almost always been the poor, the ignorant, the numerically weak, the friendless, and the powerless.”5

Scientific torture

More precisely, the torturous effects of solitary confinement were given scientific study by the CIA and military, in efforts to refine its application as a deliberate torture technique. This was exposed by Alfred McCoy, in an exhaustive exposé following and in response to the 2004 military/CIA torture scandal mentioned above.((Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Henry Holt, 2006).)) McCoy revealed that this method of torture was studied and refined as part of a $1 billion a year CIA torture research and development project, spanning from 1950-1962. One of the earlier experiments was conducted, under CIA contract, by Dr. Donald Hebb at McGill University, where he found that psychosis and severe mental breakdown could be consistently induced within 48 hours by cutting a person off from external sensory stimulation, which is, in effect, what solitary confinement does.

As acknowledged in a study by Craig Haney, at the University of California, Santa Cruz:

“There is not a single published study of solitary or super-max-like confinement in which non-voluntary confinement lasting for longer than ten days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic breakdowns and suicidal thoughts and behavior.”

Another CIA torture researcher and expert on sensory deprivation, Dr. Albert Biderman, reported that the results of sensory deprivation is not unlike physical torture: “the effect of isolation on the brain function of the prisoner is much like that which occurs if he is beaten, starved, or deprived of sleep.”6 As pointed out in my previous articles on prison torture (see footnote 1), the CIA embodied the findings of its experiments and studies in sensory deprivation in its “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” torture manual, where it acknowledged:

  1. The deprivation of sensory stimuli induces stress;
  2. The stress becomes unbearable for most subjects;
  3. The subject has a growing need for physical and social stimuli, and
  4. Some subjects progressively lose touch with reality, focus inwardly, and produce delusion, hallucinations and other pathological effects.

Legalized today

Meanwhile, despite the findings of the Supreme Court over a century ago, officials went on a binge reinstating solitary confinement (sensory deprivation) in prisons and units across Amerika beginning in the 1970s, with the result of courts finding the same torturous results and mental damage as did the Supreme Court in 1890. One of the earlier and most publicized findings were those based on studies by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian of prisoners held in solitary at Pelican Bay State Prison.7 Grassian, who’d long studied and written on the effects of sensory deprivation in solitary confinement,8 found that out of 50 Pelican Bay prisoners he examined, 40 showed psychological injury as a result of solitary. However, the courts declined to find solitary unlawful, reversing the Supreme Court’s findings of a century before. In the Pelican Bay case the court said:

“[T]he conditions of extreme social isolation and reduced environmental stimulation found in the Pelican Bay SHU will likely inflict some degree of psychological trauma upon most inmates confined there for more than brief periods…. [But] we are not persuaded… that the risk of developing an injury to mental health of sufficiently serious magnitude… is high enough for the SHU population as a whole, to find that current conditions in the SHU are per se violative of the Eighth Amendment with respect to all potential inmates.”9

Officials’ responses were to consistently block all avenues of legal challenge to the revival of solitary torture. Grassion’s findings in the Pelican Bay suit prompted Congress, the very next year, to pass a provision into law under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, banning prisoners from bringing lawsuits for psychological injury unless they could show the challenged conditions caused a prior physical injury.10 In essence all branches of government wound the clock back over a century to reinstate and “legalize” solitary torture and block its victims’ ability to challenge it, which is what prompted California prisoners in 2011 to stage a massive starvation campaign for relief from abuse, especially solitary confinement.

Known torture, unknown damage

As I’ve pointed out in a recent article, studies show solitary confinement actually causes brain damage of the sort found in people who’ve suffered physical head trauma serious enough to be knocked unconscious.11 Even mainstream reports are coming forward with revelations of solitary confinement causing physical injury such as visual loss:

“Many inmates experience a degeneration of distance vision. They are rarely more than a dozen feet from a wall, and with nothing far off to focus on, their eye muscles atrophy.”12

This validates my own observation in a report I wrote over two years before this finding, of witnessing “prisoners’ visual impairment at an unprecedented level” in super-max prisons I’ve been confined to.13

“Almost everything in today’s psychological research about the effects of solitary confinement, it turns out, had already been documented by the end of [the 1800s]. The U.S. largely foreswore the practice, and with few exceptions solitary confinement vanished for the next eight decades.”14

And while officials know solitary is torture and causes psychosis, there are no studies or clear diagnoses of the peculiar mental disorders it causes, nor what care to give its sufferers.

“In its 1999 study, the Justice Department cautioned that virtually no information exists on the effects of long-term solitary confinement….

“Such widespread ignorance of the effects of solitary confinement is striking, given that the United States pioneered the practice nearly two centuries ago—and that the experiment was decisively proved inhumane by a century’s worth of data.”15

So it is beyond question that solitary confinement is torture and one of the most painful and injurious forms. Officials and mental health professionals know this, and have known it for centuries. Yet today, with the widespread practice of it by them exposed to the public, they wish to play word games pretending it to be debatable whether it is indeed torture. They’ve played this game recently in the media, in Congress and before the United Nations. The reason being they do not wish to end the practice, just like with the U.S. military’s torture of detainees, which was the point of their passing laws (in Congress) and interpreting laws (in the courts), that in effect legalized solitary confinement by blocking its victims from legal redress.

The debates are but the games of a fascist government hiding its foul designs behind rhetoric and lofty words. The people should not be fooled nor placated by such official lies and semantics. It took a movement of the masses to abolish the practice over a century ago; it will take no less today. As I’ve previously written:

“After World War II, Germans who lived in communities near Nazi concentration camps were taken on tours of them. Many were shocked and appalled to discover the brutalities and tortures that were taking place in their own back yards, and swore they’d have opposed it if only they’d have known.”16)

Well, those who’ve read this can’t claim ignorance of the torture occurring in U.S. prisons. And those in government who claim not to know are simply lying, which is what those in power in a capitalist-imperialist system are wont to do. A first step toward changing this system and its evils is to not blindly accept their lies.

If the masses of people recognized solitary confinement as an unacceptable inhumanity almost two centuries ago, it makes no sense that if this is now a more mature society, it’s not, at least, as unacceptable today. It’s not even debatable. Join the struggle to stop the torture!

Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!

All Power to the People!


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  1. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Amerikan Prisons Are Government Sponsored Torture,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 21, no. 1 (March 2007); Johnson, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika,” Socialist Viewpoint, vol. 11, no. 2 (March/April 2011); (the version printed inSocialist Viewpoint is a condensed version, the original full-length article can be read at; Johnson, “What is the Meaning of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike,” Serve the People, no. 15 (2011), also San Francisco Bay View, vol. 36, no. 11 (November, 2011), pp 1, 16; Johnson, “Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confinement Units,” Rock, vol. 2, no. 4 (April 2013), also San Francisco Bay View, vol. 38, no. 4 (April, 2013) p. B10. All of these articles can be read at []
  2. In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168, 170 (1890). []
  3. Charles Dickens, American Notes, (1842) (New York: Fromm International, 1985) p. 99. []
  4. Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-38 (1940). []
  5. Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 237-38 (1940). []
  6. Ibid at p. 33, quoting from Albert Biderman and Herbert Zimmer, eds., The Manipulation of Human Behavior (New York: Wiley, 1961), p. 29. []
  7. Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995). []
  8. Stuart Grassian, M.D., “Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement,” 140 American Journal of Psychiatry (1983), p. 11; Stuart Grassian and Nancy Friedman, “Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry (1986) p. 49. []
  9. Madrid v. Gomez, at p. 1265 (emphasis in original). This court refused to find solitary unlawful torture although it admitted that “many, if not most, inmates in SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation on SHU.” And concluded, “[t]he psychological consequences of living in these units for long periods of time are predictably destructive, and the potential for these psychological stressors to precipitate various forms of psychopathology is clear cut.” Another federal court also admitted, “isolating human beings from other human beings year after year or even month after month can cause substantial psychological damage, even if the isolation is not total.” Davenport v. DeRoberts, 844 F. 2d 1310, 1313, 1316 (7th Cir. 1988). []
  10. 28 United States Code, Section 1997e(e), which states: “No federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” A similar standard was created and added to block lawsuits against the federal government by prisoners under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 United States Code Section 1346 (b) (2). []
  11. Op cit., note 1, “Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide….” []
  12. Jeff Tietz, “Slow Motion Torture,” Rolling Stone (Dec. 6, 2012) p. 64. []
  13. Op cit., note 1, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika.” []
  14. Jeff Tietz, “Slow Motion Torture,” Rolling Stone (Dec. 6, 2012) p. 64. []
  15. Jeff Tietz, “Slow Motion Torture,” Rolling Stone (Dec. 6, 2012) p. 64. []
  16. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Abu Ghraib Comes to Amerika,” Socialist Viewpoint, vol. 11, no. 2 (March/April 2011 []

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