The Consequences of Solitary Confinement

1st November 2015  By Anna Svensson

Can you imagine being jailed for doing your job? Or even being put in isolation? Local journalists around the world face this threat every day as they try to speak freely about political, economic, social and religious issues.

Journalism is the profession of collecting and selecting data, then processing and presenting the material using mass media. This type of work provides an important public role and, according to the United Nations’ 19th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is protected. The 19th Article states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and freedom of opinion as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information using different media – without intervention limits. Unfortunately, however, this right is not universally available, and journalism can be a dangerous profession.

Local journalists are sometimes imprisoned because the system in some countries wants to silence people and their opinions. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 221 journalists worldwide were behind bars in 2014, a number that has increased from 81 in 2000. Both foreign and local journalists face security challenges – but local reporters, bloggers, photojournalists and editors face more severe threats to their life and freedom. According to research by CPJ, over 95 percent of journalists jailed worldwide are local journalists. In some cases, jailed journalists are even tortured and isolated.

Just as local journalists seek to expose what is going on in their countries, it is important to expose the dangers they face. The journalists that are jailed for doing their jobs are not only put behind bars – but many of them are also put in complete isolation from the world around them, putting them in dangers of negative health consequences.

The Effects of Isolation

Photo: Untold Stories / Melody Sundberg

Photo: Untold Stories / Melody Sundberg

Isolation in a prison, also called solitary confinement, is when an inmate is physically separated from the other inmates. Prisoners put in isolation face two types of isolation: the social isolation of being imprisoned as well as the even more severe isolation within the prison system itself. Used long-term, this can be considered a type of torture because of the unhygienic conditions, negative health consequences and impact on social relationships.

According to an article by Atul Gawande, the “problem of isolation goes beyond ordinary loneliness”. The author describes the case of journalist Terry Anderson who were held in solitary confinement in the 80’s. During his isolation, Anderson became despondent and depressed, missing his loved ones terribly. He also experienced feelings of disintegrating, “as if his brain were grinding down”.

Truly, when an inmate is put in solitary confinement, he or she experiences social isolation, leading to a lack of meaningful social and psychological contact with others. Social isolation is a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality in humans. Being held in solitary confinement is a stressful experience that can cause mental illness. A study conducted in 1993 showed a very high prevalence (91%) of psychological trauma among 100 randomly selected isolated inmates. These prisoners suffered from anxiety and nervousness. 80% of the prisoners suffered from headaches, trouble sleeping and lethargy. 70% were fearing impending breakdown. In a study of 30 prisoners conducted in 1994, it was found that the inmates experienced significantly higher levels of psychological distress, such as hostility and anxiety. The extent of psychological damage however varies and depends on individual factors and context.

Is the News Worth Jail Time?

Living in a country where freedom of expression is given, it is hard to imagine what it is like living in countries where it is not a right. Around the world, people do not have the opportunity to speak freely. It is hard to imagine what it is like to risk being jailed and isolated for doing one’s job.

The men and women around the world who risk imprisonment, isolation, and even death on a daily basis to bring us news are aware of the dangerous profession they have chosen. They feel they can and must take these risks to expose the reality they live in. Without them, we would not know what is going on out there.









Anna Svensson
Anna is educated in psychology and values discussing issues from a psychological approach.

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