When be­ing alone be­comes pure tor­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - Lara Sin­clair

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

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