Two Articles Follow
By Jonathan Amos Science correspondent, BBC News, Chicago
Robert King now campaigns against the use of isolation practices
"To this day, I find it difficult to associate myself with my surroundings. My terrain, my geography is way off," says Robert King.
"It is off to the point where I get lost even when I am walking just around the corner from where I live."
King spent 29 years in solitary confinement, living in a box just 6ft by 9ft by 12ft.
He says it conditioned him. "But I managed to weather it. I like to say that although I was in prison, I didn't allow prison to get in me," he told BBC News.
King is famous as one of the "Angola Three", who were convicted of murdering a prison guard in 1972.
The trio were all put in solitary at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola Prison.
King won his freedom 12 years ago, his conviction quashed, and Herman Wallace likewise last year, although he died from cancer a few days after his release.
Albert Woodfox, however, continues to fight his incarceration. He has been in solitary now for 41 years.Mental illness
King took to the platform here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to decry the practice of solitary confinement.
He was joined by experts in the fields of law, neuroscience, and psychology. Their complaint was that solitary was both damaging and unnecessary.
Prof Craig Haney said it was remarkable how well Robert King had managed to adjust to freedom after so many years alone in a cell "not much bigger than a king-sized bed".
The University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher has been studying conditions in US prisons since the late 1970s, and in particular the impacts that long periods of isolation can have on inmates' state of mind.
Although definitions vary, some 80,000 individuals across America are thought currently to be held in solitary, spending sometimes 23 hours a day in their cells; and even when being taken for exercise, doing that activity on their own.
Prof Haney has interviewed more than 500 prisoners in such situations, and is in no doubt that the added deprivation these people face over and above their incarceration is extremely destructive.
"People who are in these units are in pain," he said.
"This is not an experience that is easily tolerated psychologically, and people suffer in response to it. There are variations in the response, of course.
"Not everybody is in agony. Some people appear to be somewhat more resilient than others. Some people are able to implement a strategy that enables them to survive the severe sense of loss and functioning. But these people are in many ways unusual.
"The more common response is for people to become increasingly depressed, and to be enveloped by a sense of hopelessness."
Self-harming is not an uncommon practice, he says, and there are documented cases of individuals with no pre-existing mental illness or psychiatric symptoms going on to develop them in the course of their isolation.
"You put a dog in a cage away from people, and you release that dog, he's going to bite," one SHU inmate told BBC Newsnight
Prof Huda Akil from the University of Michigan studies the brain biology of stress, emotions and depression. She said there was ample data in the literature to demonstrate the deleterious effects of solitary confinement.
"We have a vast amount of knowledge about the brain and how it responds to each one of the elements [of solitary confinement]. The lack of physical activity, the lack of interaction with the natural world like sunlight, the lack of interactions with other human beings, the lack of visual stimulation, the lack of touch - each one of those has been studied not just in humans but in animal models such as rodents. And each one by itself is sufficient to change the brain and change it dramatically."
The use of solitary confinement in the US grew rapidly during the 1980s with the spread of so-called "supermax", or "super-maximum security", prisons.
Legal challenges are now being brought against these jails.
In California, 1,000 inmates at the Pelican Bay facility are part of a class action being taken to the federal court. The prisoners are arguing that their isolation violates the American Constitution and international law because it is cruel, inhumane and degrading.
Prof Jules Lobel from Pittsburgh Law School is representing them. He rejected the notion that these were all violent people, a danger to others and themselves.
"In Pelican Bay, many of the prisoners are there, not because they have committed any violent act within prison, but simply because they're alleged to be associated with some gang. Often, that's just because they have artwork or tattoos that are seen as gang-related.
"And even those few people that might warrant segregation, there's no justification for treating them inhumanely. There is no reason penologically why you can't have windows in a cell, why you can't give people some out-of-cell time to recreate in small groups with very high security, or why you can't give people phone calls."
Researchers study effects of prolonged isolation among prisoners
There is a growing body of research about the physiological, psychological and neurological effects of isolation, such as what happens to prisoners in solitary confinement.
Lack of social interaction, lack of sunlight, lack of exercise, lack of visual stimulation and lack of human touch have all been associated with negative health effects on prisoners in solitary confinement.
By: Kate Allen Science and Technology reporter, Published on Fri Feb 14 2014
CHICAGO—After spending 29 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, Robert King knows from personal experience about the effects of long-term isolation.
“I’ll be going out and I’ll go around one corner, and before I get to the next corner I am totally lost. I am embarrassed to say this,” said King, a member of the so-called “Angola 3” whose conviction was overturned in 2001.
After entering prison with 20/20 vision, King said he left solitary unable to identify anything further than a metre away. Since getting out, his sight has dramatically improved with eye exercise.
King may not need scientists to tell him that solitary confinement wreaks profound damage on human health. But there is a growing body of research about the physiological, psychological and neurological effects of isolation.
Lack of social interaction, lack of sunlight, lack of exercise, lack of visual stimulation and lack of human touch have all been associated with negative health effects, said Huda Akil, co-director of the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute at the University of Michigan.
“Each one is by itself sufficient to change the brain and change it dramatically, depending on whether it lasts briefly or is extended — and by extended I’m talking about days, not decades,” said Akil, who spoke alongside King and three other experts at the American Association for Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago on Friday.
Akil noted that there is no direct neurobiological research on prisoners in solitary confinement. Access to current inmates is nearly impossible. A longitudinal study that tracked inmates pre- and post-prison time would be expensive and require political will.
But even lack of sunlight can have dramatic health effects, research has shown. Studies have linked night-shift work to higher rates of coronary heart disease, peptic ulcers, diabetes, and even pre-term birth.
The effect of stress on brain structure is also well known, Akil said.
The longer someone is depressed, the more the hippocampus shrinks, a brain area responsible for memory and space recognition — which explains King’s constant disorientation, Akil said.
There are an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S.; the practice also occurs in Canada. The justification presented by prison officials is that solitary confinement reduces violence in jails.
And yet “there is no evidence it works, and there is certainly no evidence it can’t be done more effectively with fewer risks in a fundamentally different way,” said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz who has interviewed over 500 prisoners in solitary confinement.
Haney has testified before congressional hearings on the use of solitary confinement and says there is a new responsiveness from governments on this topic.
“This is a time of change in this area. But I would be misleading you if I said that . . . we were on the verge of eliminating this. That’s really not the case.”
SIGN THE JERICHO COINTELPRO PETITION!
Free All Political Prisoners!