Have a few minutes? Watch this video to hear from experts why solitary isn't the answer and learn what evidenced-based alternatives could be the solution.


The United Nations, along with the world’s foremost voices on human rights, civil rights, and public health, including people who have been locked in solitary, all say YES. An overwhelming body of evidence shows the devastating harm solitary confinement causes to the people who endure it, as well as their families and communities. People subjected to solitary often experience physical pain, neurological damage, and symptoms from depression and anxiety to psychosis, and they are far more likely to commit self-harm or suicide.

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Watch Frontline’s video for a brief history on what changed in the 1970s and how that led the United States to become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of this state-inflicted torture. 


Originally introduced in the United States in the late 1700s, solitary confinement was found early on to cause devastating harm and even death. By the late nineteenth century and through most of the twentieth century, long-term solitary was rarely used and only in the most exceptional circumstances. 

In the late twentieth century, with the rise of the racially-driven mass incarceration, the increasingly punitive approach of the incarceration system, and the move away from rehabilitation, solitary confinement expanded dramatically across the United States.

By the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of people in solitary and the number of solitary confinement units increased exponentially, as solitary became a routine practice in prisons, jails, and detention centers.

Solitary: A Virtual Experience

What’s it like to spend almost every hour of the day in a cell measuring 6×9 feet for days, weeks, months or even years? One of ERASE Coalition’s partners,  Unlock the Box, collaborated with The Guardian, Solitary Watch, and other survivors of solitary to create “6×9: A Virtual Reality Experience,” which places you inside a U.S. solitary confinement cell as voices describe what it’s like to live in complete isolation. A mobile app allows you to fully experience ”6×9” on your own, with or without a VR viewer. If you don’t have a smartphone, scroll down to watch the 360° video.

Download the app for the full virtual experience:



Neuroscientists have found that long term isolation, in and of itself, is extremely damaging to the brain. Social and sensory deprivation can lead to damage to the brain’s hippocampus, resulting in loss of memory, cognitive impairments, and depression, which in turn results in further brain cell death. The sensory deprivation and natural light deprivation can also cause psychosis and other harm. People who are placed in solitary confinement, for even very short periods of time, are subject to significant mental anguish and deterioration. Common symptoms include panic attacks, paranoia, social withdrawal, sensitivities to sound, and other external stimuli.

Increased risk of self harm, from cutting to amputation to suicide, have long been associated with solitary confinement. While in isolation, adverse psychological effects of sensory deprivation can lead to psychosis, which can lead to self-harm. These effects remain with people long after they are released from solitary. Research suggests that once released, solitary survivors are 78% more likely to commit suicide within a year of their release than those not exposed to isolation.

The experience of solitary confinement is especially damaging to youth, 25 and under, because their brains are still developing. The psychological stress of being in solitary confinement can inhibit parts of the brain like the pre-frontal cortex from growing and cause irreversible harm. Restricted from social interaction and educational opportunities, youth exposed to solitary have a difficult time adjusting to life after release, and are more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide than those not exposed. One extensive study found that 60% of all incarcerated youth suicides are committed by those who either are or have been in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is linked to decrease in physical and mental health.  In addition to psychological effects, solitary is associated with heart disease as well as increased risk of death even after release from prison, including by suicide and overdose. One study reported that it’s associated with a 26% increase in premature death due to increased cortisol levels, higher blood pressure, and inflammation.

Solitary confinement creates barriers to physical and mental healthcare. In many cases, clinical assessments are performed through bars or solid metal doors, which greatly impedes clinicians’ ability to physically assess and even communicate with patients. Patients are often restricted from inpatient psychiatric treatment. Moreover, life-threatening medical emergencies easily go undetected due to isolation, sometimes resulting in serious harm or even death.

Solitary confinement can cause long-term mental and physical harm, including after people are released from prison and jail and including premature death. Also, as Dr. Craig Haney, an expert on solitary confinement, pointed out in Congressional Testimony, people placed in long-term isolation can develop long lasting social pathologies as a result of social deprivation. People can lose their sense of self, become unable to connect to reality, or have difficulty controlling their behavior. People can develop overwhelming anxiety about social interaction. In most cases, people released from solitary are not provided with transitional services to help them adjust after isolation, further exacerbating the problem.

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