If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for
decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we
end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens
to it than any other country in history has?
So asks Atul Gawande, writing in the New Yorker. In his article "Hellhole," Gawande looks at studies (of monkeys tested in isolation and prisoners of war) that show how solitary confinement—a relatively new corrections tactic—produces individuals given to either greater violence or greater insanity.
Gawande points to the story of Terry Anderson, an American journalist held hostage by Hezbollah for seven years, to illustrate the inescapable mental meltdown that can overwhelm even the sanest among us:
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with
another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to
solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no
windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an
outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there.
After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m
beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”
three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and
began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was
smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
If such derangement can overcome a lucid journalist, Gawande asks, how are prisoners, including many whose lucidity is already under question, expected to emerge from such an ordeal with any chance of becoming productive members of society?