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Inside The Hole: What Happens To The Mind In Isolation?

In the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells.
Mark Boster
/
LA Times via Getty Images
In the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay State Prison, inmates spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells.

Imagine a concrete room, not much bigger than a parking space. No window. You're in there 23 hours a day, 7 days a week; you don't know when you'll get out of this room. A month? A year? A decade?

Our minds don't do well with that kind of solitude and uncertainty.

Keramet Reiter, a criminology professor at UC Irvine, has spent more than a decade researching solitary confinement. In her new book, "23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement," she writes about the lives of people who end up in solitary units, some for years.

Reiter says inmates living in isolation crave things we might take for granted, such as the touch of another person or the sight of the moon. They often find it hard to differentiate one day from the next, because the lights are always on in their cells. Tracking weeks, months, or even years often becomes difficult.

In recent years, both liberals and conservatives – worried about the psychological and financial costs of long-term solitary confinement – have raised questions about the practice. This week on Hidden Brain, we look at what happens inside the prison cells few ever see, and the psychological effects of being alone for long periods of time.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr, and Chloe Connelly. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Chloe Connelly