Craig Haney, psychologist

Solitary confinement robs prisoners of social skills—and it can steal their sanity, too. A lawyer and psychologist explains. Interview by Becky Bach

March 28, 2014

Credit: rr jones

Craig Haney plunged into studying prisons as a graduate student during the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. The imprisonment simulation—aborted when the “guards” began abusing the “prisoners”—revealed shocking insights about the power and pervasiveness of institutions. Haney was hooked.

He continued studying prisons when he moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1977. At the time, America’s prisons were growing increasingly overcrowded. Prison educational programs had been cut and tensions were mounting. In response, prison administrators isolated inmates and revived solitary confinement—a practice debunked as ineffective and harmful that was nearly abandoned in the late 1800s.

Today, more than 80,000 prisoners spend months, years, even decades alone in small sterile cells for as much as 23 hours a day. Haney’s interviews with more than 500 inmates documents a staggering psychological toll: As many as 91 percent experience anxiety, 84 percent are confused, and 77 percent are depressed.

State and federal policies are shifting slowly. The Federal Bureau of Prisons launched an investigation of its use of solitary confinement in February and several states, including California, and reconsidering the practice. Haney regularly shares his expertise with policymakers; most recently, on February 11 he urged the California State Assembly Public Safety Committee to reform its use of long-term confinement.

Haney also spoke at a symposium on solitary confinement at the February 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. The panel included Robert King, a member of the Angola 3 who spent 29 years in solitary confinement. Spending decades in a cell was devastating, King said. He experienced numerous physical and psychological ailments, including the near-loss of his depth perception: “I was almost totally blind.”

Haney caught up with SciCom’s Becky Bach back in California.

Are you completely sick of talking about the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Not completely (laughs). To be honest, and I don’t mean to be the least bit arrogant, I have done a few things since then. But, I also recognize it is the thing that people are very much taken by, and for good reason. I’m proud of it and I think we learned a great deal from it.

You’re proud of it?

I’m proud of what it’s come to represent and I’m proud of the work we did after it… so it didn’t just become another study in the history of studies in experimental social psychology. We used it to try to expand people’s perspectives on the larger and more significant issue of what real institutions are capable of doing to people.

How did you get interested in solitary confinement?

I studied prisons extensively after the [Stanford] Prison Study, so I was very close to the changes taking place. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the American prison system was becoming significantly overcrowded. Prison administrators would look out over the sea of people—many were mentally ill and most had nothing to do—and they got nervous. When conflict would arise, they would use one of the few tools available to them: They would separate people.

And now?

Pretty soon it took on a life of its own. Prison administrators forgot how to approach conflict any other way. Instead of trying to figure out what to do, they would simply press to create more isolation space.

"Solitary confinement lasting more than a few weeks or a few months is just not regularly practiced. Modern democratic societies just don’t do this."

What have you learned from interviewing prisoners?

Well, I’ve learned how much people long for the presence of others, how much they long for meaningful social interaction and the simple experience of being able to touch other human beings. I’ve learned when people are denied these things on a long-term basis, they experience a range of psychological problems and disorders. These units don’t drive everybody crazy, but people are hurt by these places—they feel pain. They lose ability to be comfortable around other people. Their social skills atrophy, and they don’t necessarily come back easily for everyone.

I’ve also learned that people don’t get used to this. People learn how to adjust to it to get through their days, but they rarely get to the point where they could care less whether they were in solitary confinement or somewhere else.

Are there differences between people who have been confined for a long time and those who are new?

Prisoners who have recently arrived in solitary confinement are traumatized by how different it feels and by the fear of what is going to happen to them. I’ve talked to prisoners who’ve been there on an intermediate basis, and they’re trying to figure out the various mechanisms or strategies to allow them to survive. 

I’ve talked to prisoners who have been in for 10 or 20 or even 30 years. They say the routines they have developed are now part of them. They long for the opportunity to return to people they were before they were changed by these places.

Can you provide an example of the survival strategies?

Sure. Prisoners who survive well impose a strict self-discipline. They have very tight schedules they adhere to in a very rigid way day after day after day. They get up at a certain time. They force themselves to exercise, they force themselves to keep their minds alert, and they become almost militaristic about how they approach their day.

It takes a tremendous amount of initiative and discipline. You are essentially alone in your cell hour after hour, day in day out. There are certain times you eat because your food is brought to you. There are certain times that you sleep because they turn out the lights. There are certain times you exercise, because that’s when the staff escorts take you to the exercise area.

But other than that, there’s very little interaction with the larger institution. Whatever discipline you impose in the intervening periods, you have to impose on yourself. Many prisoners can’t do this, and they deteriorate even more significantly than others.

You’ve written that prisoners become antisocial. I think I would long for human contact.

Yes, it may seem counterintuitive, but that’s a real temptation because it’s very difficult to maintain social connections. After a period of months or years, it’s difficult for them to know what to say. Their family members are living lives in the free world that they don’t entirely understand, and they feel like they’re not living any life at all. It’s awkward and a lot of prisoners respond to that awkwardness by cutting it off. That’s a real pitfall, because the more you relinquish, the harder it will be to get it back.

The prisoners who adjust the best are the ones who, as best they can, keep trying to connect to the outside world.  It’s very hard to do—people on the outside lose interest. Imagine what it would be like to travel all the way to Pelican Bay [the state prison home to a hunger strike in 2013, where nearly half of the prisoners are kept in solitary confinement] way up in Crescent City, especially if you live in southern California. It’s a day or more worth of travel just to get there, and you’re limited to a few hours of a non-contact visit where you see your loved ones through a thick plate of glass and talk to them over a staticky telephone. Not everyone can psychologically maintain those relationships.

How do you think you would deal with being placed in solitary confinement?

I know I wouldn’t deal with it very well. I’ve gotten some insights about survival strategies, but I also have a very healthy respect for how painful and challenging it would be.

How do you cope with the horrors you see after a day of prisoner interviews?

It’s a combination of being exhausted, profoundly sad, and also inspired by lightening the experience for them in some small way—by giving them the opportunity to talk to somebody who is trying to understand what they’re going through.

It’s always a very mixed set of feelings. I’ve been doing it for a really long time and I’m not used to it. I have many of the same reactions that I had very early on, but it’s balanced with appreciation for what I’m learning and also an appreciation for the people.

Are the guards the bad guys?

No, I’ve learned not to blame staff members. They didn’t create these environments and they didn’t create the policies that placed people in these environments. I’ve met a lot of staff members who understand the same things I do.

A lot of them try to do the job as humanely as they can, and I respect that. It’s a reflection of how humanity finds a place to exist and survive even in the most inhumane circumstances.

In your February testimony before a California State Assembly committee, you called the United States’ use of solitary confinement “shocking and unprecedented by international standards.” What was the legislators’ reaction?

I think the legislature understands we have a serious problem from a humanitarian prospective and from a financial perspective. It’s even a problem from a public safety perspective. I don’t think there’s any evidence these policies have improved safety within institutions or outside.

It is hard to argue that 10,000-plus prisoners who are in isolated confinement on any given day in California are benefitting from this experience, and a large number of them are being harmed by it.

Most of those folks will be released to a mainline prison population and eventually back into society. If they have been harmed by the experience, then the likelihood they will return to prison is a significant problem.

You’ve mentioned that many states and countries are reducing the use of solitary confinement. Is there a model state or country?

Internationally, it’s a very unusual practice. Solitary confinement lasting more than a few weeks or a few months is just not regularly practiced. Modern democratic societies just don’t do this. You can almost randomly point to a country in Europe, and it will be a model compared to us.

In the United States, Maine has significantly changed the way they approach these issues. Washington has been very progressive. Colorado has at least been attempting to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is working to reduce the use of solitary confinement. Do you think it will become a relic?

Yes. It’s an optimistic prediction, but I think we will return to a time much like the time before the 1970s when solitary confinement was used less frequently, and for shorter terms. It seems to be time for us to have a serious discussion about the wisdom and the humanity of these policies in the United States.


© 2014 Becky Bach

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