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Psychological Deterioration in Solitary Confinement

Samantha Plate's picture

Samantha Plate

Play In The City


      Solitary confinement. Two words today known as one of the worst types of punishment. However, back in 1829, solitary confinement was thought to be the solution to crime in America. Reformers thought that they could help criminals rather than merely punishing them. They hoped this brand new prison system would be the start of a great reformation across the country. However, human nature is not made for solitary confinement. The conditions of the prison began to cause a huge detriment to both the prisoners and the workers. Both groups had to struggle to keep from growing insane, causing an even bigger tension between the two groups. However, once the prisoners and guards realized that they weren’t all that different, they were able to work together to create a better environment for the both of them.

            Before Eastern State, prisons were a place to punish prisoners. They were kept there, away from society, for a few years, and once let free they often returned. The Quakers noticed that the prisoners did not seem to learn their lesson, leaving the prisons they same way they came in. It was this realization that prompted them to create the Eastern State Penitentiary. No longer were prisoners going to be thrown in to large holding cells with other inmates. No longer were guards and overseers going to be allowed to physically abuse prisoners. And no longer were prisoners going to keep returning to the prisons after their sentences were over. This new type of prison would be revolutionary. Prisoners would be put into single cells and be left alone to think about their lives and repent their wrongdoings. They would not receive physical punishment and would have very little contact with the guards. Their cells were amazing innovations, each one having heating and plumbing. The prisoners were also given work to do. They would learn what it means to “work for the sake of work” rather than for monetary or material reasons (Janofsky 111). They were also given Bibles to read to help them become penitent and would be visited by a Baptist minister who could help them reform their ways. The plan seemed perfect. By having little else to do but self-reflect, the prisoners would quickly realize their past mistakes and would want to become new productive and upstanding members of society.

            Unfortunately, this idealized result the Quaker reformers dreamed of (and truly thought would occur) did not come to fruition. The solitary confinement strategies that the Quakers had worked so hard to perfect were not without flaws. Human nature is not one to easily accept a solitary life, and so prisoners looked for any way to resist the tactics of the Quakers. They used the innovative plumbing and heating systems to pass messages to each other. They refused to do the work that was asked of them. They often refused to speak to the minister, and when they did speak to him they were abusive and manipulative. They acted the same way towards the guards (Janofsky). The Quakers thought they had everything perfectly planned, but there were quite a few flaws that enabled the prisoners to rebel. Instead of focusing on self reformation and contemplation, prisoners spent most of their time fighting back as best they could. And they had good reason too. Prisons can drive people mad, especially when in solitary confinement. The rebellious acts the prisoners performed were giving them something to do. Having a goal, something to concentrate on, helped to keep prisoners from going insane.

            And the prisoners weren’t the only ones heading down a path of psychological deterioration. The overseers were also affected by the long work hours and limited social interaction. The hallways they roamed were silent. They barely had any contact with the prisoners and other guards. They too began to feel the effects of being alone for prolonged hours. When they did interact when the prisoners, things got ugly very quickly. These men came from similar walks of life as the prisoners. However in the prison there was a huge social divide created by the physical walls of Eastern State Penitentiary. What occurred is very similar to what happened in Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment. The men were quickly elevated to a high social standing by being given an authority position and uniforms to help them fit the role. Although they were not supposed to use physical punishment, the guards quickly became very abusive towards the inmates. In Zimbardo’s experiment, the guards would force hard labor upon the prisoners, insult them, and put them into dark holes as punishment (Cherry). At Eastern State overseers also began to abuse prisoners, especially the ones exploiting the flaws in the system. They locked them up in dark cells, refused them meals, and physically abused them whenever they acted out. Zimbardo’s study showed that people with no psychological disorders quickly began extremely “hostile and dehumanizing” towards prisoners because they were given a position of control (Cherry). In a similar way, the guards at Eastern State, who were normal citizens outside of the penitentiary, became controlling and abusive towards prisoners when given power and left to their own devices. Eastern State was not only detrimental to the prisoners but also the overseers responsible for trying to handle the chaos that the Quakers left them with.

            Once the prison became too crowded and the attempts of solitary confinement continued to fail, things began to turn around. Prisoners now had to share cells and over time were allowed to interact more and more. Eastern State began to resemble a nicer and more organized version of the regular prisons throughout the country. Overseers began to interact more and more with the prisoners and the tension decreased. The prisoners began to work together, exercise together, and play together. They formed a baseball team and played chess and other games in the halls. The guards began to sympathize and empathize with the prisoners and began to allow more and more. One of the overseers even brought the inmates a Christmas tree to celebrate the holidays. Prisoners were allowed to listen to the radio too. Notorious criminal Al Capone was allowed by the guards to have lavish decorations and possessions in his cell. As the solitary confinement decreased, and the relationship between the guards and prisoners became more positive, the prison became a better place for everyone.

            Even though the Quakers were unable to reform the prisoners the way they wanted to, once the prison was left to its own devices, it settled into a better state, where psychological and physical abuse were less extreme. The prisoners became more cooperative and the guards began to allow for better conditions. Solitary confinement can cause a lot of psychological damage to both the abused and the abuser and does not work as a form of reformation. Once the penitentiary changed their ways, the prison became a better place for all involved. And in the end, prisoners still seemed to grasp at least some of the Quakers message- there was no way they ever wanted to come back once they got out.

Works Cited

Cherry, Kendra. "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2013. <>.

Janofsky, Jennifer L. ""Hopelessly Hardened"" Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. Ed. Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. Athens: University of Georgia, 2012. 106-23. Print.

*Other information about Eastern State Penitentiary came from the audio tour*