Shruti Ravindran in Aeon:
In the fall of 1982, the forensic psychiatrist Stuart Grassian visited Walpole State Penitentiary, Massachusetts’s only maximum-security prison at the time. He went there at the behest of a legal aid attorney, who wanted him to evaluate the mental health of the inmates in the prison’s segregation unit. He spoke to 14 young men who’d been in isolation for several months, each in a 6ft x 9ft cell with a barred inside gate, and a steel door with a voice box and a dirt-stippled glass panel the width of his face. Grassian expected to hear fantastically exaggerated claims from prisoners looking to dupe their way out of the unit, but each vociferously denied that anything was the matter. ‘Solitary doesn’t bother me,’ one told him. ‘Some of the guys can’t take it, I can,’ said another. With close questioning, Grassian wrote later in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the second prisoner ‘came to describe panic, fears of suffocation, and paranoid distortions while he had been in isolation’, while the first had recently slashed his wrists because he ‘figured it was the only way to get out of here’.
They suffered a range of symptoms: stupor, delirium, hallucination, and a loss of ‘perceptual constancy’ – the ability to recognise the sameness of things when viewed from different distances and angles. Many had painfully sharpened senses. One lived in dread of prisoners on the tier above turning on the faucet, sending water clinking and whooshing down the pipes. ‘It’s too loud, gets on your nerves. I can’t stand it – I start to holler,’ he told Gassian. ‘Are they doing it on purpose?’
Half of them hallucinated constantly. They heard whispers and muttered sounds, which took on menacing meanings: prison guards conferring about amputating a prisoner’s leg, someone getting beaten up with sticks. One prisoner – the disconsolate historian of Sartre’sNausea brought to life – was haunted by the inconstancy of objects. ‘Melting, everything in the cell starts moving,’ he told Grassian. ‘Everything gets darker, you feel you are losing your vision.’ Another had Alice in Wonderland-like visions, featuring pancakes of diminishing sizes delivered to his gate. Four had extended bouts of amnesia. They said they felt narcotised, and couldn’t concentrate on anything.
‘These people were very sick,’ recalls Grassian. He thought it resembled anoxic brain injury – the result of an oxygen-starved brain – or delirium tremens, suffered by dipsomaniacs in the throes of alcohol withdrawal. But the symptoms also recalled a curious set of Cold War-era experiments that Grassian had read about years before.