Solitary Confinement: No Way Out of the Monster Factory

Part 1: ABCNews' Dan Harris voluntarily spends 48 hours in a tiny cell at the Denver County Jail.
3:00 | 09/20/12

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Transcript for Solitary Confinement: No Way Out of the Monster Factory
Well, tonight, across this country, some 80,000 prisoners are locked in solitary confinement. Prison reformers pushed it as a humane alternative to hanging, almost 200 years ago. But some modern reformers think it is pure torture. Practice has led to congressional hearings, u.N. Reports, inmate hunger strikes. To better understand the toll of forced solitude, abc's dan harris volunteered to spend 48 hours in the hole. Reporter: I'm cuffed and stuffed in the back of a sheriff's vehicle. Right in front of you. Turn around, put your hands -- Reporter: This is everybody's worst nightmare. Come on this way, please. Reporter: The further we get into this, the more real it feels. Look up at the camera, please. Everything you need for your spell upstairs. Shoes, a blanket. Reporter: I am about to enter what some have called a monster ory. We arrive at what will be my new home. It's 7 by 12 feet, all concrete and metal. I am in solitary confinement. Everybody agrees criminals should be punished, but critics say solitary is legalized torture. That makes inmates more dangerous when they get out and can be three times as expensive as regular inmate housing. But corrections officials insist it is a necessary tool to control a dangerous population. So, to get a sense of what it's really like, we were granted an extraordinary inside look. Officials at the downdown denver detention center agreed to make me an inmate for 48 hours. Locked up, alone, in a room with only a camera to talk to. Tell you what, when that door closes and you're in here, by yourself? It is very lonely feeling. Pretty soon, the screaming starts. I'm going crazy in here! They're leaving me locked in a room for 23 hours a day! Reporter: While the commotion is jarring to me -- making sure everybody's okay and making sure everyone has regular breathing going on, no one's trying to hurt themselves. Reporter: It is nothing new at all for guards like thomas acey, who works the overnight shift. He makes his rounds every half hour. This is my pod. I listen to everything that goes on in here, just to have a good feeling on what's going on. You hear it all. Reporter: As night falls and the lights go out, the howling and banging gets more intense. The guy in the cell directly below me is having a meltdown for several hours now, screaming, banging on the door of his cell. My neighbor downstairs also in solitary has taken off his clothes, he's urinated all over the floor and ripped up pages of the bible and slipped them under his cell door. For their own safety and the safety of the inmates, the guards don't go into the cell unless the inmate is actually hurting himself. You can't help but wonder how they're feeling. You have to take that into consideration, too. When someone is acting out, you have to put yourself in their shoes. After a couple of months of solitary confinement, your mind starts playing tricks on you. Reporter: Studying show the human brain actually sloems down after just a week in solitary and that lengthy sentences can do damage similar to head trauma. We are social animals. Take away human interaction and inmates often become depressed, consumed by irrational anger, violent and suicidal. What's your name? What's your birthday? Reporter: Making matters even more volatile? Many of the inmates who end up in solitary are already mentally ill. And regularly medicated. Back in my cell, surrounded by the sounds of human suffering, with zero privacy, lights streaming in and only a thin blanket to keep me warm, i settle in for a long, restless night. Morning arrives and so does breakfast, through a slot in the door. I got to tell you, it is virtually impossible to get an ininterrupted nights sleep he because there's so much noise. It's hard to figure out what to do with myself. I stare off, brush my teeth, work out. This is my mini jail-issue toothbrush. My liquid toothpaste. This is the sink area. I'm sure the minutes in there seem like hours. Reporter: The guards, who are monitoring my every move say they are surprised by how quickly I've adopted typical inmate behavior. He's been stretching, pacing back and forth. So, kind of typical behavior, actually, of what we see, minus the screaming and the yelling. This is my own solitary. Just playing a game of cards. Reporter: There are basically three kinds of inmates in here. I just did a little sketch of some mountains. That's what I do miss. Reporter: Those that prefer it, which is rare, like herschel franklin, in for first degree assault. I got breakfast in bed, lunch in bed, dinner in bed. I ain't got to worry about other guys with their problems, whatever. I'm just deeming with me. This is no game. This is not a game. Reporter: Then, there are those who are in here for their own protection, like my downstairs neighbor, who is mentally ill. The other type of person who ends up in solitary? How do you plead to the charges? Guilty. Reporter: The rulebreakers, like dylan head, captured here on jail cameras getting into a fight. I'm okay giving him up to 15 days. Reporter: As dylan goes in -- think about it before I get into a fight next time. Reporter: Jail officials invite me for a chat, a welcome relief from my stifling cell. On my way, I step around the pages of the bible that my neighbor ripped up overnight. One of ourorst nightmares would be to be in your situation, where we were locked down like that. Reporter: Really? Yeah. Because we're -- you know, we see this all the time, so -- we understand. This is our way of keeping people safe. Worried about people getting hurt and some of these folks in general population would be a danger to themselves and other inmates. This is the best tool we have. Reporter: Our interview is interrupted by a horrifying noise. What is that? We'll show you what happened in a moment. Also, coming up, inside the cells with the other inmates. How do they get through the that's what you hear all day.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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