Robert King stands in a wooden replica of his 6x9x12 cell by artist Jackie Sumell in April 2011.

Editor’s Note: This report was first published in February 2014.

Story highlights

About 80,000 people in the U.S. are being held in solitary-type confinement

New York state agreed to limit solitary confinement for some prisoners

Study showed solitary prisoners had higher likelihood of self-harm

CNN  — 

Robert King still remembers well the dimensions of his cell: 6 x 9 x 12 feet. There was a steel bed and a sink that doubled as a toilet where he would also wash clothes.

King spent 29 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana. He has been free since 2001, but still has difficulty with geographical orientation.

“I get confused as to where I am, where I should be,” he said.

King joined researchers and legal experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago this month to talk about the mental and physical health consequences of solitary confinement.

“The widespread consensus among mental health professionals is that solitary confinement, for the overall majority of mentally ill prisoners, places them at severe risk of additional harm,” said Craig Haney, director of the program in legal studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The talk was timely. This week, New York state agreed to several changes that would limit the use of solitary confinement for disciplining some groups of inmates, including those under 18 or pregnant women. The agreement stemmed from a class-action lawsuit.

The New York State Department of Corrections provided to CNN a statement from its acting commissioner, which read in part: “These are important reforms that will make the disciplinary practices in New York’s prisons more humane, and ultimately, our state’s criminal justice system more fair and progressive, while maintaining safety and security.”

A department spokesperson said no statement was available on the general use of solitary confinement.

A brief history of solitary confinement

There are about 80,000 people being held in some sort of solitary-type confinement in the United States, Haney said.

Prisoners in solitary confinement tend to be restricted to cells of 80 square feet, not much larger than a king-size bed, Haney said. Sleeping, eating and defecating all take place inside that space. For exercise, prisoners in solitary confinement often get a short time in a cage rather than an outdoor yard – perhaps one hour per day.

Haney, who has studied prisons and punishment for more than four decades, estimates that about one-third of people in solitary confinement in this country are mentally ill, although some prison systems do not permit mentally ill inmates to be placed in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement was used broadly in the 19th century, but the punishment was then largely abandoned because of the view that “it was doing more harm than good,” Haney said.

Correctional practice began to reincorporate solitary confinement in the late 1970s and 80s, as prisons began to get overcrowded, Haney said. He believes prison systems turned to solitary confinement as a short-term solution to controlling disruptive or violent behavior, lacking the resources to provide positive incentives or programming.

But overcrowding in prisons turned out to be permanent and mostly increased each year.

Prison systems continued to struggle over what to do to resolve conflicts or stop violence or disruption in the institutions. They put more prisoners in solitary confinement and left them there for longer periods of time, Haney said.

“I think the cost of solitary confinement is now being critically examined and rethought, and prison systems are beginning to ask themselves whether this is worth it, and whether or not it does not create more harm than good,” he said. “Courts are pushing them to consider the inhumanity of the practice, as well.”

‘Prison wasn’t in me’

King noticed six months into his time in solitary confinement that his eyesight significantly worsened – he thinks because his eyes had become acclimated to such short distances in his cell. Over time, he retrained his eyes so that he would not be so nearsighted, he said.

Eye problems are not uncommon in these circumstances. In fact, Jules Lobel, professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said there is a swath of cataract surgeries at Pelican Bay Prison in California.

Lobel represents more than 1,000 prisoners at Pelican Bay in a lawsuit alleging that keeping prisoners in such conditions – isolated in small, windowless cells with no physical contact or phone calls – violates the Constitution and international law because it is “cruel and inhumane.”

King, who was freed when his conviction was overturned 13 years ago, said his mental health suffered, too, but he knew others were faring worse and he was determined to not let that happen to himself.

“I was depressed every day I was in prison,” he said. “I wanted to get out. I was in prison, convicted for a crime I didn’t commit. Of course I was depressed.”

Initially, food was served to him on a tray under the door to his cell; sometimes the tray was flung onto the floor with its contents spilled. King said he and other inmates filed a redress and went on hunger strikes until they negotiated that holes would be cut in bars to serve the food in a more sanitary way.

He said he and others also filed a lawsuit so that the prison would give them the opportunity for outdoor exercise. King could talk to other prisoners through the walls or by sliding notes.

“What helped me weather the storm was: I was in prison, but prison wasn’t in me,” he said.

What it’s like

Solitary confinement has been associated with many different physical and psychological ills.

“When isolated prisoners are asked, they point to anger, hatred, bitterness, boredom, stress, loss of the sense of reality, suicidal thoughts, trouble sleeping, impaired concentration, confusion, depression, and hallucinations,” writes Peter Scharff Smith of the Danish Institute for Human Rights in an essay published by University of Chicago Press.