When being alone becomes pure torture
I’VE never seen a ghost but the old jail at Richmond, Tasmania, is one of the few places where I have felt oppressed by what felt like the spirits of past inhabitants.
Maybe it was simply my imagination amplifying the descriptions of life in the solitary confinement wing.
Not only were convicts imprisoned alone in their cells in darkness and silence, but so diligent were their jailers about removing any sense of contact with the outside world, they put plates of food down on blankets to muffle the sound, thus depriving the prisoners even of that brief contact with the outside world.
In the US, more than 20,000 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement and the rise of supermax- style prisons means this is on the increase.
The war on terror and resulting images of detainees have led to an increased knowledge — and tendency to question the humaneness — of detention and interrogation methods.
In this engrossing Horizon science program, the BBC follows Ian Robbins — Britain’s leading expert in treating victims of solitary confinement ( whose face, incidentally, is always obscured) — as he puts six volunteers into complete isolation for 48 hours and observes the results.
Three are kept in total darkness and silence, while three wear blackout masks, hear only white noise and wear arm- cuffs to deaden their sense of touch. The contention is that just as the human brain performs better when stimulated, it performs worse when stimulants are removed. The question is, how much worse?
Sensory deprivation experiments conducted under US psychologist Donald Hebb in the 1950s — inspired by claims some countries were brainwashing detainees during the Cold War — were considered too cruel to be continued.
In this re- creation, our volunteers include a meditation devotee, an ultra marathon runner, a psychology student, a stand- up comedian, a copywriter and a film archivist, each of whom reacts in a slightly different way. Memories of the Birdman of Alcatraz, who was held in that prison’s segregation wing D- block for six years, intrude.
Indeed, the most revealing parts of the documentary are interviews with two long- term prisoners held in solitary confinement and their descriptions of the effect they believe it had on them.
But thoughts of reality shows such as Big Brother aren’t far away either as the scientists observe the activities of their subjects on camera.
Then there are the simple brain function tests the volunteers perform before and after their incarceration.
An underplayed but particularly interesting outcome is the difference in results between the sexes.
Two days, it turns out, is a hell of a long time to be alone.
Solitary man: Barney Ashton during his stint in isolation