In 1993, Craig Haney, a social psychologist, interviewed a group of inmates in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, California’s toughest penal institution.
He was studying the psychological effects of isolation on prisoners, and Pelican Bay was among the first of a new breed of super-maximum-security prisons that states around the country were beginning to build.
Twenty years later, he returned to Pelican Bay for another set of interviews. He was startled to find himself facing some of the same prisoners he had met before, inmates who now had spent more than two decades alone in windowless cells.
“It was shocking, frankly,” Dr. Haney said.
Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects. Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out psychologically robust.
But most studies have focused on laboratory volunteers or prison inmates who have been isolated for relatively short periods. Dr. Haney’s interviews offer the first systematic look at inmates isolated from normal human contact for much of their adult lives and the profound losses that such confinement appears to produce.
The interviews, conducted over the last two years as part of a lawsuit over prolonged solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, have not yet been written up as a formal study or reviewed by other researchers. But Dr. Haney’s work provides a vivid portrait of men so severely isolated that, to use Dr. Haney’s term, they have undergone a “social death.”
Sealed for years in a hermetic environment — one inmate likened the prison’s solitary confinement unit to “a weapons lab or a place for human experiments” — prisoners recounted struggling daily to maintain their sanity. They spoke of longing to catch sight of a tree or a bird. Many responded to their isolation by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing even further, shunning even the meager human conversation and company they were afforded.
“If you put a parakeet in a cage for years and you take it out, it will die,” one older prisoner said. “So I stay in my cage.”
In recent weeks, the use of prolonged solitary confinement, a practice that has been widespread in the United States, has received unprecedented levels of attention.
President Obama, who last month became the first president to visit a federal prison, questioned whether “we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time.”
And in a Supreme Court ruling in June, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing about solitary confinement, noted that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price.”
In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in federal court against state officials on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates who had spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, claiming that their prolonged isolation violated their Eighth Amendment rights. The parties are now in settlement negotiations, said Jules Lobel, the president of the center and a constitutional law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who is the lead lawyer in the lawsuit.
Dr. Haney and several other expert witnesses retained by the plaintiffs’ lawyers prepared reports in the case, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times.
Dr. Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, interviewed 56 prisoners who had spent 10 to 28 years in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit, or S.H.U., including seven men he had interviewed in 1993, eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit and 41 randomly selected inmates. For comparison, he also interviewed 25 maximum-security inmates who were not in solitary.
The inmates landed in prison following convictions for serious, often violent crimes. Paul Redd, 58, murdered a competing drug dealer; Gabriel Reyes, 49, was found guilty of burglary and sentenced under California’s three-strikes law. The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Todd Ashker, 52, was convicted of second-degree murder, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a deadly weapon.
But most were placed in the isolation unit not because of their original crimes but because they were deemed to be gang members or gang associates, under California’s policy at the time. The state corrections department said that such long-term confinement was necessary because of gang killings in the prisons and attacks on staff members and other inmates.
Prison administrators say there are some inmates so violent or unmanageable they must be kept apart from other people. But consigning inmates to solitary for years — or even decades, as California has done — is viewed by an increasing number of top corrections officials around the country as unnecessary and ineffective, and some human rights groups have called it torture.
Many of the inmates Dr. Haney interviewed talked wistfully about mothers, wives and children they had neither touched nor spoken to for years — prisoners in the isolation unit were not allowed personal phone calls and were prohibited from physical contact during visits. Some had not had a single visitor during their years in solitary.
“I got a 15-minute phone call when my father died,” said one inmate who had been isolated for 24 years. “I realized I have family I don’t really know anymore, or even their voices.”
Another prisoner described placing photographs of his family facing the television in his cell and talking to them while he watched.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but it makes me feel like I’m with them,” he told Dr. Haney. “Maybe someday I’ll get to hug them.”
Some prisoners became so disoriented they began to question their own existence.
Another inmate said that the hour or so he had spent in the interview was “the most I’ve talked in years.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, citing the continuing litigation, declined to comment on the lawsuit or on the reports of Dr. Haney or other expert witnesses for the plaintiffs. But since the lawsuit was filed, the department has moved many inmates who had been in isolation at Pelican Bay for more than a decade to other settings. All but two of the 10 inmates originally named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now in other facilities, according to Jeffrey Callison, a department spokesman.
In an interview, Dr. Haney said that he was especially struck by the profound sadness that many of the inmates he interviewed seemed to carry with them.
“The weight of what they had been through was apparent on them and in them,” he said.
“They were grieving for their lost lives, for their loss of connectedness to the social world and their families outside, and also for their lost selves,” he said. “Most of them really did understand that they had lost who they were, and weren’t sure of who they had become.”
‘There Is No Other Reality’
An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners in the United States are held in solitary confinement, according to prison experts. Most spend 23 or more hours a day in their cells, allowed out only for showers, brief exercise or activities like medical visits.
Prison experts say the use of long-term isolation escalated in the 1980s and 1990s, when many states, dealing with gang violence and overcrowding caused by stiffer sentences, built super-maximum-security facilities intended to house “the worst of the worst.”
In recent years, however, a growing number of states — driven by lawsuits, budgetary constraints and public opinion — have begun to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation. Prison consultants called in by state systems to assess the risks posed by the prisoners in solitary have often found that only a small minority require such restricted confinement.
Pelican Bay, when it opened in 1989 in a remote area near the Oregon border, quickly gained a reputation as one of the most severe penal institutions in the nation. The sprawling complex houses more than 2,700 prisoners, more than 1,000 of them in solitary confinement.
Other California prisons also have isolation units. But Pelican Bay’s S.H.U. was designed to minimize human interaction. The windowless, 7.6-feet-by-11.6-feet cells were built to face concrete walls. Doors opened and closed electronically. Corrections officers spoke to the inmates through intercoms.
Although prisoners could communicate with other inmates by shouting through steel doors perforated with little holes, or the ventilation shafts, they otherwise had little interaction.
“If you go to Corcoran, there’s a window; if you go to Tehachapi, there’s a window,” said Joseph Harmon, 51, a former gang leader who spent eight years in isolation at Pelican Bay after five years in solitary confinement at other prisons.
“At Pelican Bay, there is no other reality,” said Mr. Harmon, who said he was sent there after a violent attack on another inmate but eventually renounced gang activity and became a pastor in Stockton, Calif. “It was a tomb. It is concrete tomb.”
Gang members make up a significant portion of the inmates in solitary confinement around the country, in most cases placed there for acts of violence or disruption.
But until recently in California, any prisoner deemed to be a gang member or an associate of gang members, regardless of the prisoner’s behavior, was sent to Pelican Bay or one of the state’s three other security housing units for an indefinite period.
The state’s gang policy shifted after several hunger strikes by inmates at Pelican Bay and other prisons and criticism by civil rights groups. The corrections department now uses different criteria to place inmates in isolation, and it has created a program that allows them to eventually work their way out.
Mr. Callison, the department spokesman, said that 1,081 inmates were currently housed in the security housing unit at Pelican Bay for indefinite terms. Of those, 34 have been there for more than 10 years and 28 for more than 20 years; in 2012, there were 308 inmates in the security unit who had been there for more than a decade. Most of those longtime inmates have entered the step-down program, Mr. Callison said.
Civil rights lawyers, however, have criticized the department’s program, saying that it takes too long to complete and that inmates are still held in isolation unnecessarily.
In a report prepared for the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the suit, James F. Austin, a corrections consultant, called the department’s revised procedures for assigning inmates to isolation “grossly inadequate.”
The step-down program, Dr. Austin added, was “flawed in its basic structure and needs to be significantly revised.”
‘Just Give Me the Death Penalty’
In 1993, the prisoners Dr. Haney interviewed reported high rates of psychiatric complaints like depression, irrational anger and confused thinking, and stress symptoms like dizziness and sweating hands.
When he returned to Pelican Bay, he expected that over two decades, those men would have adjusted to their circumstances.
But the inmates, Dr. Haney found, still had many of the same symptoms. “The passage of time had not significantly ameliorated their pain,” he wrote.
For comparison, Dr. Haney also interviewed 25 randomly selected maximum-security inmates at Pelican Bay who were not in solitary confinement.
While 63 percent of the men in solitary for more than 10 years said they felt close to an “impending breakdown,” only 4 percent of the maximum-security inmates reported feeling that way.
Similarly, among the prisoners in isolation, 73 percent reported chronic depression and 78 percent said they felt emotionally flat, compared with 48 percent and 36 percent among the maximum-security inmates.
In depositions prepared for the Pelican Bay lawsuit, the inmates in long-term solitary also described having anxiety, paranoia, perceptual disturbances and deep depression.
One plaintiff, Mr. Reyes,said he had severe insomnia and that in the silence of the isolation unit, he sometimes heard a voice calling his name and cell number. Other times, he said, “I just see spots, just little things move.”
Mr. Redd, said that his dreams were often violent but that they became that way only after coming to Pelican Bay.
“I didn’t even have dreams,” he said. “I didn’t even have thoughts of looking up at the top of my bunk and you see cracks on the bunk and say, ‘Hey, man, if they got a little earthquake, this wall, this top bunk is going to fall down on you.’ You know, you start getting a little nervous thing.”
Locked in his cell, Mr. Redd said, he often plunged into despair.
“It’s not to the point where you want to commit suicide,” he said, “but sometimes, I’m at the point that I’d be wanting to write the judge and say, ‘Just give me the death penalty. Just give me the death penalty, man.’ ”
Studies have found that suicides among prisoners in solitary confinement, who make up 3 to 8 percent of the nation’s prison population, account for about 50 percent of prison suicides. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are also more common in isolation units than in less restrictive settings.
Mr. Redd, who spent more than 11 years in Pelican Bay, has now been moved to a treatment facility at the State Prison at Corcoran.
But other inmates’ experiences suggest the effects of his incarceration at Pelican Bay are likely to linger.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and an expert on prison mental health issues, found in interviews of former Pelican Bay inmates conducted for the lawsuit that even years after their release, many still carried the psychological legacy of their confinement. They startled easily, avoided crowds, sought out confined spaces and were overwhelmed by sensory stimulation.
“They become very impaired in terms of relating to other people,” Dr. Kupers said.
Lonnie Rose, 64, was convicted of drug possession and sentenced under California’s three-strikes law. He was released in 2013 after eight years in isolation. At Pelican Bay, he said, he had worked hard to stay healthy.
“I was pretty much resigned to spend the rest of my life in that cell,” he said. “But what we do is make the best of a bad situation. I studied, I exercised; one day turns into another.”
Still, he said, he has difficulty in crowds, and his obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which worsened in solitary, have persisted.
“Everything has to be just so,” he said. “Being in a concrete box for a long time makes you even more O.C.D.”
Mr. Harmon, the former gang leader who was released from Pelican Bay in 2010, said that even five years later, he does not like people touching him.
“As a pastor, it’s hard,” he said. “People come up and want to touch you, they want to hug you.”
Mr. Harmon is married now and said he had put his past life behind him. But a few times a month, he is seized with the urge be alone in a small, silent space. He tells his wife, “Don’t talk to me,” and retreats to the bedroom.
“It’s just something that takes over my being,” he said.
Mr. Harmon said he thought he deserved to be in solitary confinement for a time.
“There are violent men in prison, and I was one of them,” he said. But, he added, “I’m against long-term mental torture.”
“Let that dog out of that cage and see how many people it bites,” he said. “I don’t understand why people can’t understand that concept. It’s simple.”
New York Times