Solitary Confinement & Autistic Symptoms Study

silhouette of inmate with head on handPrison officials often punish Pagan and Wiccan inmates for their beliefs with solitary confinement. A new study by Veronica V. Solaris that we assisted backs up our observation that “punitive segregation” inflicts psychological damage that outlasts inmates’ return to society. 

A great many of the Pagan and Wiccan current and former prisoners who contact us for help have been subjected to prolonged or repeated solitary confinement as arbitrary punishment for exercising their constitutional right to follow a religion one of their jailers doesn’t like. Long-term solitary confinement (known in the corrections industry as “punitive segregation”) is such a brutal, psychologically damaging practice that a growing number of states are restricting its use.

We helped Alliant International University doctoral student Veronica Solaris find volunteers for her dissertation study, Segregation and Autistic Symptoms: Are Men Formerly Housed in Social Isolation in Prisons and Jails Becoming Pseudo-Autistic?, which she conducted in 2016 to determine whether solitary confinement causes autistic behavior, given brain scientists’ growing understanding of the “mirror neurons system’s” important role in relating with other people.

Here, she describes her study and her motivation for doing it, followed by Lady Passion’s notes on post-solitary-confinement symptoms she’s observed during more than a decade counseling incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals:

Veronica Solaris: I believe it’s important to share why I did my study. After several years of conducting direct counseling the men housed in the solitary confinement in prisons in California, and hearing their unique difficulties and problems they were having once released, I began to look into why so many of them were feeling like they were experiencing a “mentacide”, like the word “homicide”, the death of the mind. Some clients described unique symptoms and leaving me asking, “What would cause such a thing?” In my classes I was introduced to the “mirror neurons system” (MNS) in our brain, a region that is responsible for learning by watching others. This part of the brain also controls relating with people, language, and initiating behavior. I became fascinated by this part of the brain and began to ask, what happens if this part of the brain goes to sleep, such as men who are separated from people, like in solitary confinement? A lot of research of problems in this area often led me to autistic symptoms. When I looked at the past research on prisoners, several showed difficulties with communicating, repetitive behaviors, and difficulties socializing as well as showing other symptoms, like echolalia (repeating words), being sensitive to sounds, higher aggression, and difficulties relating to people, all symptoms found in autism. My study aimed to find a connection between problems in this area (MNS), segregation, and maybe experiencing something similar to autism, or a “pseudo-autistic” condition.

In this study, men did report a lot of present day autistic symptoms that were not present before being segregated, but I was not able to fully show if it was a result of solitary confinement or something else, like ADHD or substance use. I am still left asking, “Why are so many men coming out of segregation reporting autistic symptoms? Are men housed in segregation cells becoming pseudo-autistic because of the impact of segregation on the mirror neurons?” This study was just a beginning point and I’m … hoping to bring attention to this important topic.

Veronica Solaris, Psy.D.
Alliant International University

Lady Passion: [Many] of my annual hundreds of inmate & institutionalized folks’ requests for aid are from people in segregation, solitary, or on Death Row. …

They invariably complain of: Negatively obsessive thoughts; intense sense of vulnerability/invisibility as a person; classic frequent dissociation — sometimes purposefully self-induced as a coping mechanism, at other times, manifests unbidden and undesired; a sense of bleak hopelessness; agony at complete remove from contact with family, friends, and other inmates; certainty that the mail-room staff are withholding letters to them; suicidal sadness about their lot.

They are articulate and descriptive in their divulging to me their feelings and symptoms. They are aware they have negative symptoms, but don’t know how to feel positive given their circumstance. The longer they’re alone, the more they start nurturing murderous anger against whomever they blame for their being segregated. Upon release, they physically protect themselves pretty much life-long by: Refusing to be in a room without an open exit; always having their back to a wall or corner so they can see everyone in the room without being hit from behind; not trusting anyone again ever; being furtive; talking less, etc. …

Lady Passion, HP, R.N.

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