Scientific studies have shown that it can take less than two days in solitary confinement for brainwaves to shift towards delirium or stupor (pdf). For this reason, the United Nations has called on all countries to ban solitary confinement – except in exceptional circumstances, and even then to impose a limit of no longer than 15 days so that any permanent psychological damage can be averted. Shourd spent a total of 410 days in solitary and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after her release. She still has trouble sleeping. But since returning home, she has spent much of her time trying to draw attention to the plight of more than 80,000 Americans who are held in isolation on any given day, some of whom do not count their stay in days or months, but in years and even decades.
Solitary confinement fell out of favor in American prisons for much of the last century, until a building boom of Supermax or control-unit prisons began in the early 1990’s. You know, when being “tough on crime” was all the rage. It still is; being “smart on crime” still isn’t. By 2005, 40 states were operating Supermax facilities, the physical design of which served to severely isolate prisoners both from the outside world and from their fellow inmates. Despite the extreme harshness of life in these prisons, where inmates are often held in tiny, windowless cells with limited or no access to the outdoors, the average stays far exceeds the UN’s recommended 15-day maximum.