The Prison With Its Own Psychological Disorder


Certain prisons take on certain notoriety because of their reputation or place in history. Alcatraz, Sing Sing, and San Quentin all evoke images of forbidding institutions that have housed the most violent prisoners society can produce. Out of all of them, there is only one that has the distinctive honor of having a psychological disorder that is uniquely its own. Welcome to Pelican Bay State Prison.

Pelican Bay State Prison is the only supermax prison in California. Opened in 1989 and located in Crescent City, just south of the Oregon border, the 275-acre facility can hold up to 3,319 inmates.

While designed to hold the most violent offenders, the prison has accommodations of varying security levels. About half of the facility is devoted to the Security Housing Unit (SHU). Within SHU, 8-by-10-foot (2.4 m x 3.0 m) cells each hold a single prisoner. The cells have no windows. Inmates remain in near-isolation in their cells for up to 23 hours each day.

The isolation and extreme security have given rise to a condition known as “SHU syndrome.” Those afflicted with this condition report hallucinations, depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal tendencies. The symptoms are comparable to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

One of the earliest descriptions of the condition was in a 1983 article by Stuart Grassian, “The Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement.” He interviewed fourteen inmates who had been confined from eleven days to ten months. These inmates reported heightened sensory acuity, affective disturbance (particularly anxiety), difficulty with concentration and memory, as well as illusions and misperceptions. It should be noted however that all the subjects in this study were inmates who had filed a class-action lawsuit based upon their condition of solitary confinement.

Whether the effects of SHU Syndrome are real or not, hopefully, the prospect of facing the possibility of such ill effects will be enough to deter any would-be criminals from pursuing a life of crime.

Read more fun facts about crime.

Read more fun facts about psychology.

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