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Research informs new play exploring effect of solitary confinement on mental health

  • SolitaryThe mid-19th century saw the ‘Separate System’ (solitary confinement) introduced in the UK and Ireland, originally intended to enable prisoners to reflect and reform
  • Concerns quickly raised about effects on prisoner health: hallucinations, delusions, self-harm
  • Regime continued to be implemented in prisons despite evidence of damage to prisoners
  • Usage later became associated with punishment rather than reform
  • Solitary confinement still in use today despite its devastating impact on mental health, how can nothing have changed in over 150 years?

Coventry City of Culture

Researchers from the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick have teamed up with Coventry based theatre group, Talking Birds, and academics at University College Dublin (UCD) to explore the devastating effect of solitary confinement in a new play, Disorder Contained: a theatrical examination of madness, prison and solitary confinement.

The play will be performed at the Shop Front Theatre in Coventry running from 29 June to 1 July before touring in Dublin and Belfast later this summer. This is the third and final part of the ‘Asylum Trilogy’ a series of plays dedicated to bringing research into the history of mental health to a wider audience.

This interdiscplinary production aims to make the findings of academic research accessible to the public in an entertaining form that also opens up conversations about mental illness and its history.

In Disorder Contained Coventry’s Talking Birds combine music, song, compassion, and humour to explore the rationale behind solitary confinement and prisoners’ responses to it. Set in the mid-19th century, the ‘Separate System’, the spiritually-inspired adaptation of solitary confinement intended to enable prisoners to repent their crimes, is being introduced to British and Irish prisons.

Talking Birds have worked closely with academics at the University of Warwick and University College Dublin to interpret their research, drawing on contemporaneous documents such as prisoners’ memoirs, doctors’ casenotes, and the reflections of prison staff.

Professor Hilary Marland, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick says, “The Separate System was originally conceived by prison chaplains, doctors and governors as a way for prisoners to reflect upon their crimes and reform. Prisons were built to totally prohibit contact between prisoners, who wore masks when moved around the prison and were placed in individual booths, or ‘coffins’, when attending chapel. Prisoners described how the regime put each man in his ‘private hell’.”

"There will be expert panel discussions after the Thursday evening performances in each venue and a post-performance discussion on Saturday 1 July, providing opportunities for audience members to discuss the making of the piece with researchers and the theatre company, and to engage in debate on issues raised by the performance."

Concerns about the detrimental impact of the prison system on the mental health of inmates are mounting, putting pressure on prison staff, prompting governmental enquiries, and featuring persistently in the agendas of prison reform organisations.

Associate Professor Catherine Cox, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at University College Dublin in Ireland said, “Evidence that the Separate System caused hallucinations, delusions, and insanity quickly became overwhelming. But rather than being abandoned, the elements of penitence and reform were reduced and the system transformed into a regime of harsh and deliberate punishment, one that has endured until the present day.”

Writer and Director Peter Cann explains the challenge of interpreting the research: “This show is the final part in a trilogy of work we’ve made together exploring insanity, its treatment and containment in the 18th and 19th centuries. Over time, we have developed a way of working that takes historical material – which makes for fascinating if rather grim reading – translating it into characters and stories which resonate with today’s issues.”

Tickets to Disorder Contained: a theatrical examination of madness, prison and solitary confinement are available on the Shopfront Theatre website:

Notes for Editors

Talking Birds is a Coventry-based theatre company, renowned for its work connecting people and place. In addition to the Asylum Trilogy, previous collaborations with the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick include Three Doctors, marking the history of Coventry & Warwickshire Hospital, and The Ballad of Elizabeth Barnwell.

The performance has been created as a part of ‘Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000’ a five-year project, funded by a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award, and led by Professor Hilary Marland (University of Warwick) and Dr Catherine Cox (University College Dublin) which undertakes research into topics that resonate with current concerns in the prison service, including the very high incidence of mental health problems amongst prisoners, the health of women and maternity services in prison, and responses to addiction and HIV/AIDS.

Show dates and times



Venue: Shop Front Theatre, City Arcade, Coventry, CV1 3HW


Thu 29 June 19:30 & post show discussion with creative team

Fri 30 June 14:30 & 19:30

Sat 1 July 14:30 & 17:30 & post show expert panel




Venue: Smock Alley Theatre, 1662, 6-7 Exchange Street, Lower Temple Bar, Dublin


Wed 12 July 20:00 & post show discussion with creative team

Thu 13 July 20:00 & post show expert panel

Fri 14 July 15:00 & 20:00



Venue: The MAC, 10 Exchange Street, Belfast BT1 2LS

Dates: Sat 15 July 19.30 & post show expert panel



Age guidance: 12+


Social media

Twitter: @birdmail @HistPrisnHealth #disorder




Alex Buxton
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Tel: 02476 150423
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