The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement in a gaol is the separation or isolation of a prisoner from other inmates in a special cell for all or much of the day. It can be used as a punishment or to protect others in the prison from a violent or threatening individual. Conversely it can be employed to protect a particular prisoner from attacks by others in the prison, or to confine a prisoner who is at risk from self-harm.

This type of incarceration has long been used in prisons around the world employing a variety of confinement methods including “black cells” where the prisoner is locked in total darkness for much of the day. Time spent in “solitary” varies considerably extending from days to months or even years in extreme cases.

In Australia “black cells” were used up until the 1970’s in such gaols as Grafton, Long Bay and Maitland but today have been replaced by “segregation cells” that are lit and subject to surveillance by prison officers. Some cells also have small exercise enclosures attached. The time spent in “solitary” in Australia is generally much less than it was fifty years ago leading to a more humane segregation environment although prison psychologists still have misgivings about the process.


The effects of solitary confinement largely depend on the length of time involved and the severity of the environment but many experts believe that it can trigger a number of mental health issues. These include depression, aggression, anxiety and insomnia, all as a result of the boredom and sensory deprivation produced by reduced human contact. Long-term isolation is also possibly associated with an actual change in the brain structure, a shrinking of the part of the brain called the hippocampus that is used in memory and decision-making.

In 2011 the United Nations called for a total ban on solitary confinement stating that even 15 days “constituted torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. In addition, a sentence of more than 15 days was considered likely to produce permanent psychological damage.

“Solitary confinement is too terrible a punishment to inflict on any human being, no matter what his crime. Hardened criminals in the men’s prisons, it is said, often beg for the lash instead.”
– Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 to 1928), leading British suffragette.

Photo: By Édouard Hue – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,