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Observations placeholder

Prolonged incarceration



Type of Spiritual Experience

Out of body

Number of hallucinations: 1



Dr. Grassian was a Board Certified Psychiatrist who was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for over twenty-five years. He had had extensive experience in evaluating the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement, and in the course of his professional involvement, has been involved as an expert regarding the psychiatric impact of federal and state segregation and disciplinary units in many settings. His observations and conclusions regarding this issue have been cited in a number of federal court decisions.

A description of the experience


From Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement - Stuart Grassian

The United States was actually the world leader in introducing prolonged incarceration, and solitary confinement, as a means of dealing with criminal behavior. The “penitentiary system” began in the United States, first in Philadelphia, in the early nineteenth century, a product of a spirit of great social optimism about the possibility of rehabilitation of individuals with socially deviant behavior.

The Americans were quite proud of their “penitentiary system” and they invited and encouraged important visitors from abroad to observe them. This system, originally labeled as the “Philadelphia System,” involved almost an exclusive reliance upon solitary confinement as a means of incarceration and also became the predominant mode of incarceration, both for post conviction and also for pretrial detainees, in the several European prison systems which emulated the American model.

The results were, in fact, catastrophic. The incidence of mental disturbances among prisoners so detained, and the severity of such disturbances, was so great that the system fell into disfavor and was ultimately abandoned. During this process a major body of clinical literature developed which documented the psychiatric disturbances created by such stringent conditions of confinement.

Indeed, by 1890, … the United States Supreme Court explicitly recognized the massive psychiatric harm caused by solitary confinement:

. . . . . . [E]xperience [with the penitentiary system of solitary confinement] demonstrated that there were serious objections to it. A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.

An adequate state of responsiveness to the environment requires both the ability to achieve and maintain an attentional set and the ability to shift attention. The impairment of alertness and concentration in solitary confinement leads to two related abnormalities: the inability to focus, and the inability to shift attention.

The inability to focus (to achieve and maintain attention) is experienced as a kind of dissociative stupor—a mental “fog” in which the individual cannot focus attention, and cannot, for example, grasp or recall when he attempts to read or to think.

The inability to shift attention results in a kind of “tunnel vision” in which the individual’s attention becomes stuck, almost always on something intensely unpleasant, and in which he cannot stop thinking about that matter; instead, he becomes obsessively fixated upon it.

These obsessional preoccupations are especially troubling.

Individuals in solitary confinement easily become preoccupied with some thought, some perceived slight or irritation, some sound or smell coming from a neighboring cell, or, perhaps most commonly, by some bodily sensation. Tortured by it, such individuals are unable to stop dwelling on it. In solitary confinement ordinary stimuli become intensely unpleasant and small irritations become maddening. Individuals in such confinement brood upon normally unimportant stimuli and minor irritations become the focus of increasing agitation and paranoia.

I have examined countless individuals in solitary confinement who have become obsessively preoccupied with some minor, almost imperceptible bodily sensation, a sensation which grows over time into a worry, and finally into an all-consuming, life-threatening illness.

Individuals experiencing such environmental restriction find it difficult to maintain a normal pattern of daytime alertness and nighttime sleep. They often find themselves incapable of resisting their bed during the day—incapable of resisting the paralyzing effect of their stupor—and yet incapable of any restful sleep at night.

The lack of meaningful activity is further compounded by the effect of continual exposure to artificial light and diminished opportunity to experience natural daylight. And the individual’s difficulty in maintaining a normal day-night sleep cycle is often far worsened by constant intrusions on nighttime dark and quiet, such as steel doors slamming shut, flashlights shining in their face, and so forth.

There are substantial differences in the effects of solitary confinement upon different individuals.

Those most severely affected are often individuals with evidence of subtle neurological or attention deficit disorder, or with some other vulnerability. These individuals suffer from states of florid psychotic delirium, marked by severe hallucinatory confusion, disorientation, and even incoherence, and by intense agitation and paranoia.

These psychotic disturbances often have a dissociative character [out of body] , and individuals so affected often do not recall events which occurred during the course of the confusional psychosis.

Generally, individuals with more stable personalities and greater ability to modulate their emotional expression and behavior and individuals with stronger cognitive functioning are less severely affected.

The source of the experience

Ordinary person

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Sensory deprivation