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Prolonged Isolation and Sensory Deprivation

Prolonged isolation is the denial of contact with other human beings, including through segregation from other prisoners, for prolonged periods of time, i.e. solitary confinement. Sensory deprivation refers to the reduction or removal of stimuli from one or more of the senses for prolonged periods.

Sensory deprivation is a technique that is “calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses” and “the personality.” It tends not only to result in situations of complete dependency on the interrogator but also leads to severe anxiety and often causes hallucinations. Studies have demonstrated that even short-term isolation can result in: an inability to think or concentrate; anxiety; somatic complaints; temporal and spatial disorientation; deficiencies in task performance; hallucinations; and loss of motor coordination.

Solitary confinement can result in include depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration and memory, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations and perceptual distortions, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and problems with impulse control. The UN Committee against Torture has encouraged states to abolish the practise, noting that, outside the interrogation context, solitary confinement “should be applied only in exceptional cases and not for prolonged periods of time” [1] and has determined that prolonged solitary confinement could constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.[2] Furthermore, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement may impact the psychological “integrity of the prisoner.”[3]

An illustration of solitary confinement. (Courtesy of the IRCT)


[1] Broken Laws, Broken Lives pp. 101.

[2] Broken Laws, Broken Lives pp. 101.

[3] Broken Laws, Broken Lives pp. 101.