location: publications / books / Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada / Chapter 3 Solitary Confinement in the Age of Corrections: Cruel and Unusual Punishment in the Twentieth Century / Solitary Confinement in the BC Penitentiary / The Effects of Solitary Confinement

The Effects of Solitary Confinement

The full effects of placing prisoners in solitary confinement for long periods of time are not easily understood. Indeed, in this area many of our normal methodologies for assessing effects on behaviour fall to the ground. Since very few of us have ever been placed in a situation remotely analogous to that in which prisoners in solitary confinement find themselves, we cannot use the valuable lessons of our own experience. If we turn to science we find -and I will elaborate on this later -that 'there are few reports in the scientific literature on sensory deprivation among prisoners. Most of the studies that are available have used volunteer subjects and have been of relatively short duration. Few adverse effeets have been reported in these studies and there are no reports on the effects of long term confinement.60

The task of understanding the effects of dissociation is also complicated by a tendency to focus on the physical conditions of confinement. This tendency is part of our general perception of imprisonment as above all else a physical punishment. The tendency is compounded among those who gravitate to the study and practice of criminal law because the law is concerned primarily with physical harms to the person, to property, or to public order. In the world of lawyers, therefore, the points of reference for crime and punishment are primarily physical. However, in the world of letters there is a rich literature which conceives of crime and punishment in ways that focus on the psychological dimensions of suffering. As I will endeavour to show, Dostoevsky is a surer guide than Glanville Williams in understanding what it is that we do, in the name of the criminal law, when we send men to the solitary-confinement cells.

The importance of understanding the effects of solitary confinement in terms beyond the physical was recognized by the study group on dissociation appointed in 1975 by the federal solicitor-general to consider 'the usefulness of dissociation as a method of punishment, the effectiveness of dissociation as a means of protecting inmates, and the living conditions that exist in both types of dissociation from the point of view of humane treatment and the negative effects of prolonged isolation.'61 The study group found that 'most segregated inmates complained more about the manner in which they were treated than the physical conditions in which they lived,' and that 'the physical milieu is not as crucial to the inmate as the psychological.'62 Having noted the lack of adequate scientific studies on long-term dissociation, the study group set out the factors they felt were likely to affect the degree to which segregation was detrimental to a prisoner: the reason for being segregated; the process by which the prisoner is segregated; the physical facilities and routine; the lack of contact with staff and other prisoners; the length of the period of segregation; the uncertainty as to when a prisoner will be released; and the process by which the prisoner is returned to the population. The study group devoted just three pages of its report to an elaboration of these factors.63 During the McCann case some four weeks of evidence was given, much of it relating to the effects of solitary confinement. In fact, the evidence of the plaintiffs and their expert witnesses constitutes the largest body of data so far assembled for the purpose of documenting the effects of long-term segregation. Dr. Richard Korn, in his evidence, said that in light of the hiatus in the scientific literature, 'there are no experts other than the prisoners ...This is the only evidence available to science.'64
Before turning to the evidence of the prisoners, however, something should be said about that evidence. Mr Justice Heald stated in his judgment that he accepted the plaintiffs' account of the effects on them of the conditions in SCU. Despite this finding, it may occur to some readers that perhaps it was in the plaintiffs' interests to paint the bleakest possible picture of life in solitary confinement. It is important to understand the price paid by the plaintiffs in giving evidence at this trial. The plaintiffs, in seeking to make the court understand the full horror of their confinement, had to relive their experiences in solitary. Jack McCann and Mel Miller broke down in the court under the strain of that remembrance. It was not an easy thing for prisoners to admit in front of the guards with whom they would go back to the prison that the solitary confinement experience broke them down. Such an admission is easily interpreted as a sign of weakness, and for many prisoners in the super-macho society of maximum security, weakness must never be shown in front of penitentiary staff. Such is the nature of the relationship between the keeper and the kept. But some of these plaintiffs, in an effort to avoid the continuation of what they believed to be a barbarous system, were prepared to admit in front of their guards that they could be brought to tears when they recalled and relived what had been done to them and to their friends in solitary. The plaintiffs faced another great difficulty in presenting their evidence. They were talking about events quite beyond the experience of the man who was being asked to pass judgment on those events. Hermann Hesse has eloquently captured their dilemma:

To express in words something that refuses to be put into words ...what gives these experiences their weight and persuasiveness is not their truth ...but their reality. They are tremendously real, somewhat the way a violent physical pain or a surprising natural event, a storm or earthquake, seem to us charged with an entirely different sort of reality, presence, inexorability, from ordinary times and conditions.65

Page 1 of 9