The nation's roughly 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement are "at grave risk of psychological harm," Craig Haney, PhD, APA member and professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Cruz, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. "The conditions of confinement are far too severe to serve any kind of penological purpose," he said.

Haney, who was appointed this year to a National Academy of Sciences committee studying the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration in the United States, has interviewed hundreds of prison staff and inmates and toured and inspected dozens of U.S. prisons. At a June 19 hearing, he showed pictures to illustrate solitary confinement's harsh conditions, including filthy cells that are "scarcely larger than a king-sized bed," he said. As a result of the endless monotony and lack of human contact, "for some prisoners ... solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness." Many inmates experience panic attacks, depression and paranoia, and some suffer hallucinations, he said.

Former inmate Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years on death row, including 10 in solitary confinement for a murder he didn't commit, drove home Hanley's points. "I would watch guys come to prison totally sane, and in three years they don't live in the real world anymore," he said. One fellow inmate, Graves said, "would go out into the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all over his face."

Graves, who was exonerated in 2010, said he still feels the effects of the decade spent in solitary confinement. "I haven't had a good night sleep since my release," he said. "I have mood swings that cause emotional breakdowns."

Such long-term effects are common, Haney said. "One of the very serious psychological consequences of solitary confinement is that it renders many people incapable of living anywhere else." Then, when prisoners are released into cells or back into society, they are often overwhelmed with anxiety. "They actually get to the point where they become frightened of other human beings," he said.

—Sadie Dingfelder

Read more about the mental health effects of solitary confinement in the May Monitor.

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