Solitary Confinement: What Are the Impacts of 43 Years of Isolation?

A solitary cell.
(Image credit: Dabarti CGI |

A man who spent nearly 43 years in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison could soon be set free. But questions remain about whether longtime inmate Albert Woodfox (now 68 years old) will ever escape the effects of spending so much time locked up and alone.

The effects of solitary confinement on a prisoner's well-being is a subject that has been debated since the first half of the 20th century, according to Peter Scharff Smith, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights in Copenhagen. While several studies have downplayed the negative effects of isolating prisoners for long periods of time, many more have concluded that this practice is quite harmful on both a physiological and psychological level, Scharff Smith told Live Science.

"When you look at all of the available research, it's pretty clear that solitary confinement is dangerous. There's clearly a risk of negative effects on health," he said. [7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments]

Though the specific conditions of solitary confinement differ from one institution to the next, most prisons use "solitary" as a form of disciplinary punishment or to help keep order, according to Scharff Smith, who wrote an extensive review of studies on the effects of this imprisonment practice for the journal Crime and Justice in 2006.

"What these studies show, if you look at them together, is that the main issue or problem [with solitary confinement] is the lack of psychologically meaningful social contact," Scharff Smith said. Prisoners in solitary are usually kept in a small, locked cell for 23 hours a day and have very few interactions with other human beings (apart from the guards who escort them outside their cells for exercise or showers) he added.

This lack of social stimulation is linked to a slew of side effects that researchers have observed in prisoners who have spent time in solitary confinement. Some of the reported symptoms include anger, hatred, bitterness, boredom, stress, loss of a sense of reality, suicidal thoughts, trouble sleeping, confusion, trouble concentrating, depressionand hallucinations.

Why does a lack of social interaction lead to so many negative side effects? One theory, posed by Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, is that the brain actually needs positive human interactions to stay healthy. Social interaction may activate growth factors in the brain, helping brain cells regrow, Akil said at a 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Further, the problems that solitary confinement cause are not purely psychological. Studies have also linked this form of isolation to more physical symptoms, including chronic headaches, heart palpitations, oversensitivity to light and noise stimuli, muscle pain, weight loss, digestive problems, dizziness and loss of appetite.

It's impossible to predict which, if any, of these symptoms could plague Woodfox if federal judges decide to release him from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. Woodfox was originally imprisoned in 1971 for armed robbery and was placed in solitary confinement in 1972, when he and two fellow inmates were found guilty in the murder of a prison guard. The other two men with whom Woodfox was convicted have since been released. One, Herman Wallace, died shortly after his release in 2013. Robert King, who was released in 2001, is now an advocate for the rights of prisoners in solitary confinement.

In 2014, 13 years after being set free, King told CNN that he still suffers from confusion, saying that he often gets "confused as to where I am, where I should be." He also said he started experiencing problems with his vision soon after entering solitary confinement. In addition, King told CNN that depression was a constant (though expected) symptom.

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.