Keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture

Friday, February 8th, 2019

Professional gambler Rich Alati took an unusual bet:

On 10 September last year, the American was sitting at a poker table at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, when he was asked a question by a fellow professional player, Rory Young: how much would it take for him to spend time in complete isolation, with no light, for 30 days? An hour later a price had been agreed: $100,000.

Young would hand over the money if Alati could last 30 days in a soundproofed bathroom with no light. He would be delivered food from a local restaurant, but the meals would come at irregular intervals to prevent him from keeping track of time. There would be no TV, radio, phone or access to the outside world but he would be allowed some comforts: a yoga mat, resistance band, massage ball, and, appropriately for a bathroom, lavender essential oils as well as a sugar and salt scrub. If Alati failed he would have to pay Young $100,000.


Dr Michael Munro, a psychologist Young consulted before agreeing to the bet, told Young: “Even if he lasts for 30 days, it will be extremely taxing on his mental health for the short and potentially long term.”

There’s good reason for such caution. Solitary confinement is often used as punishment, most notably in the United States, where inmates in solitary are isolated in their cells 23 hours a day. The United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture.


But Alati was confident. He had practiced meditation and yoga, and was certain his experiences at silent retreats would help him. On 21 November, a crowd of families and friends gathered at the house where the challenge would take place. Alati and Young’s lawyers were there as well as cameramen from a production company interested in buying television rights to the story. For that reason, as well as safety, the entire bet would be recorded. Alati’s father was given the power to pull Alati out at any time should he show signs of not being “in the right headspace,” as Alati puts it.


Around the 10-day mark, Young started to worry that Alati might make the 30 days, noting he looked “totally fine”. He worried he had miscalculated: Young hadn’t known Alati – a gregarious, fast talker – for long before they had made the bet. “His personality did not reflect that of someone who was proficient with meditation,” Young said.

On day 15, Young’s voice came on over the loudspeaker. Alati jumped out of bed, happy to hear a voice that wasn’t his own. Young told Alati that he had been in for around two weeks and that he had an offer for him: Alati could leave if he paid out $50,000.


Alati waited for a few days until Young came back on the loudspeaker and asked if he had any offers of his own. Alati said he wouldn’t come out for less than $75,000, to which Young countered with an offer of $40,000. They settled on $62,400. Alati had had been in the silence and dark for 20 days.


  1. Ezra says:

    They had the man who was dared a million dollars to stop talking for one year. He was able to do so. He had his vocal cords cut. Fiction on TV thankfully. But I assume someone might actually contemplate such a thing.

  2. Kirk says:

    Isolation and sensory deprivation are things that individual humans have vastly different tolerances for. Some would go mad in hours, and others…? You’ll be unlocking the door at the end of your 30 days, and they’d walk out as if it never happened.

    I think a lot of people would be surprised at the crap humans have tolerated, and what they have done historically. The peasants in parts of Europe used to essentially go into hibernation in the winter, and would emerge in the spring like so many bears, none the worse for wear. Of course, that was well before the modern era, so we’ve forgotten all that.

    Before a friend of mine ran out of college money and had to join the Army, he’d been at some school back east, and eked out a good deal of his expenses by serving as a test dummy for various experiences. He described one test they did where they were examining the effects of sensory deprivation, and they had left him locked in a sensory deprivation chamber from some time on a Friday afternoon until Sunday, when the researcher realized they’d forgotten to get him out at the end of his session, which was supposed to be later Friday afternoon. His description of it all was that it was an interesting experience, because he had no idea what had happened–He thought it was the regular session the way it was supposed to go, and didn’t clue in that he’d been in there for nearly 48 hours until he was getting dressed to leave. The graduate student who’d left him in there was acting weird, and extremely solicitous, which made my friend think something was wrong. He thought it was because he’d had to use the bathroom while in the tank, and was apologetic, but the real reason was that he’d just set some kind of record, and they usually took people out of those tanks under such circumstances in a state of mental disturbance. He was disturbing to the researcher because he was just like “Hey, can I get my check now? I want to pay some bills, this weekend…”. At that facility, everyone else who’d even done half the time in the tank he had needed counseling… Him? “Hey, it was kinda nice… I’ve never gotten such good rest!”.

    Humans are wildly variable…

  3. Graham says:

    Interesting experiment. I could go without human contact quite some time, though probably less than I used to think. But no diversions, no sound and no light, and a mat on the cold floor to sleep on?

    Just call me Squirrelly Joe, because that’d be my state of mind.

    Guess the monastery isn’t my retirement plan after all.

  4. Kirk says:

    Some of us would find the experience… Restful.

  5. Phil B says:

    I can see a lot of volunteers for this isolation in the lead up to the next election. In fact, I think you’d be overwhelmed with people wanting to get away from the non stop political commentary.

  6. Graham says:

    Something to all that. I have colleagues who haven’t shut up a day about DJT in the over 3 years since the primaries,and we live in a different country.

    Granted, after a couple of years I managed to get the discussions across the corridor at high volume down to far less than daily, but there’s always something.

    I don’t need to like the man to have gotten tired long ago. I’ve got real things to think about.

    SO it goes. So I couldn’t object to a bit of respite, but it shouldn’t have to be me in the box.

    On a more serious note, I have always been above average in readiness to enjoy solitude, so I’m on board up to a point. But I would really want to think about it- there’s avoiding talking to folks, then there’s hiding out at home, then there’s cutting off even friends, then there’s cutting off web comms and TV and music, and then at last there’s total darkness, sound isolation, and sleeping on a bathroom floor for 30 days.

    I’ve wondered what sensory deprivation tanks or anechoic chambers would be like as experiences, but as I get older I lose the easy assumption that I would be able to handle let alone enjoy either, mentally or even physically. Too many unknowns. I suppose if anyone offers me the chance I’d need to try either.

  7. Senexada says:

    There is a fascinating long-form article about the North Pond Hermit, who walked into the Maine woods in 1986 and had no human contact for 27 years, except for walking past one hiker. He had plenty of beautiful sensory input from the north woods, he did listen to the radio, steal books, etc.

    The article is derived from a full-length book. I was a little disappointed that the full-length book (referenced in the article) had only a few additional direct quotes from Mr. Knight. The book gives considerably more background & follow up, and includes a fascinating chapter on other hermits & sensory deprivation scenarios, including shipwrecks and cave experiments — some of which turned out fine, some badly. It is a fascinating field.

  8. Kirk says:

    I think it’s down more to the individual than anything else…

    Some people would be perfectly happy in a situation where there was limited to no stimulus; others would go quite mad in very short order. I’m not sure how much of that is due to innate nature, and how much is due to cultural programming. As with nearly all human behavior, I think it is a mix of both factors–Some people are culturally conditioned to have other people or things around them, and others… Not so much. One recalls that family of Russian peasants that went into the Siberian forests after the Revolution, and which was not found again until the 1970s, having missed out on everything in between. They weren’t even aware of Stalin or WWII…

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