The Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement

Prisoners who are subjected to solitary confinement show symptoms and describe a phenomenology that is not equivalent to either autism or induced autism, but reflect similar motor problems, and often times more extensive and serious disruptions of experience. Guenther (2013), looking at the phenomenology associated with solitary confinement, describes it as becoming “unhinged”: “[Prisoners subjected to solitary confinement] see things that do not exist, and they fail to see things that do. Their sense of their own bodies – even the fundamental capacity to feel pain and to distinguish their own pain from that of others – erodes to the point where they are no longer sure if they are being harmed or are harming themselves”….
In solitary confinement the transcendental intersubjective basis of the experience of the world as real and objective is structurally undermined… It completely closes down the possibility of secondary intersubjectivity and therefore of participatory sense making, undermining the capacity to sustain meaning. These problems with derealization, and with sensory-motor processes, correlate with depersonalization and the dissolution of the self.

Shaun Gallagher (Memphis / Hertfordshire / Wollongong) applies the ideas of Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty, along with psychological research and legal scholarship, to the question of the cruelty of solitary confinement, in an interdisciplinary exploration in Frontiers in Psychology.

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