Amicus Brief: Solitary Confinement and Brain Damage, United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit


March 11, 2022

Center for Law, Brain and Behavior. Amici Curiae Brief - Perry v. Spencer, No. 16-2444


The neurosciences have much to contribute to social justice and criminal justice reform. The legal system is largely built based on assumptions about mental capacity, responsibility, and potential for rehabilitation. These are behavioral and brain science questions. Our work with the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior at Harvard MGH finds opportunities for science to advance the legal system, and creates collaborations across disciplines to further such work. 

This amicus brief centers on a case of extended solitary confinement, and specifically asks whether mental harm suffered during confinement should be considered deserving of damages. The key question here is whether mental suffering such as PTSD or extended sleep deprivation can be likely to cause physical brain damage. Learn more about the case specifics at this link.

The human nervous system is fundamentally plastic: Brain structure, functions, and connections all change in response to intrinsic and extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing, even in adulthood. This malleability makes us deeply vulnerable to harmful environments. And those environments have impacts that are more than “merely” psychological; they change the brain itself. They amount to a physical injury. Legal policies which suggest mental injury is somehow not physical are subscribing to outdated scientific doctrine, especially with respect to solitary confinement. 

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