At least 25,000 inmates are held in isolation in supermax prisons in the U.S., the New Yorker reports. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too. The magazine tells how prisoners in isolation start to lose their minds. Bobby Dellelo was in isolation in a Walpole, Ma., prison for five years and one month, part of a 40-year term for murder. He was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage about fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” After a few months without regular social contact, his experience proved no different from that of most isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind.
He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours. He had panic attacks, screaming for help.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, studied a hundred randomly selected inmates at California's Pelican Bay supermax.After months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind–to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he said. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result.” In extreme cases, prisoners may become essentially catatonic. The magazine tells how Britain has sharply reduced the use of isolation for most prisoners by offering them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills.