Sleep Deprivation As a Method of Torture

Keeping someone awake for days is a preferred way of torture by regimes who claim to respect human rights and international laws. It is also often used in police interrogations to get confessions.

Written by:


, Sleep Researcher
Last Updated: Sun, October 6, 2019
Fact checked by:

Marko Jevtic

, Sleep Specialist

Sleep deprivation can be tough and draining, but have you ever thought that it could be a somewhat efficient way of torture and interrogation? It seems that we always underestimate the effects of sleep deprivation on our health and mind, no matter how often we discuss its consequences. We are willing to stay up all night binge-watching, suffer the day after and be fine later, but it is hard to imagine the aftermath of such mental torture as forced deprivation of sleep is.

We differ two types of sleep deprivation, partial and total. Total one only occurs during some emergency cases, while partial one can be caused by, for example, shift working. Total sleep deprivation is not so common, and many things are still unknown about it, but it can appear as a consequence of interrogation and torture. It is harder to lie when you are mentally drained and tired, and interrogators know that; that is why they prefer inspecting their subjects while they are tired. But forced and severe sleep deprivation does not necessarily mean that someone will speak the truth just because they are in such condition because it can mess up their mental state and lead to many irrational statements.

When you think about many other ways of torture, sleep deprivation may even sound like a tame and mild way to break someone’s will, but when an expert does it, it can last for days and be extremely severe. Keeping someone awake for days leaves no visible or physical harms, only mental ones, and it is a preferred way of torture by regimes who claim to respect human rights and international laws. But, just because it is more “subtle,” it does not mean that it should be legal.


Is Sleep Deprivation Legal?

Police interrogations are never a pleasant experience, but whether you are guilty or not, be sure that the officers who are interrogating you will do anything they can to get at least a glimpse of your confession. The interrogation environment is their advantage, they keep their suspects for hours in rooms with bright lighting and without windows. They control when or if you will eat and drink, and most importantly, will you get a chance to sleep or not.

Studies have shown that sleep-deprived people are more likely to confess things that they did not do, in comparison to those who got enough sleep.

Although currently, the eighth amendment protects US citizens from unusual and cruel punishments, sleep deprivation is not an illegal form or interrogation. Most courts interpret this amendment in a way that it can only be applied after someone is already convicted. But, in 2014. United Nations published a report in which this way of interrogation was defined as torture, but that only refers to extreme cases of sleep deprivation that last up to 180 hours, which could hardly ever happen during any police interrogation.

The United Kingdom, for example, recently banned interrogation of suspects who did not have the opportunity to sleep at least eight hours in previous 24, mostly because a large number of cases with false confessions is being returned to courts. In the US, 25% of cases turned out to be wrongly prosecuted due to false confessions; those mistakes are later proven and corrected thanks to DNA evidence.


Sleep Deprivation As a Means of Brainwashing

One way of attempting to “brainwash” prisoners was sleep deprivation, and it was widely used during the Korean war, but the CIA also used it as a part of their experiments with mind control.

Brainwashing is considered a mind-controlling process or an act that tends to control the human mind using mostly some psychological techniques. Brainwashing should result in the subject’s reduced ability to think independently, it should control its attitudes, acts, and thoughts until it basically becomes a marionette. The concept and idea of brainwashing were conceived during the 1950s to explain how the Chinese government managed to force people to cooperate with them. Today is brainwashing widely discredited, but it remained a popular subject of many spy novels and related literature.

The term brainwashing comes from Mandarin word xi-nao, xi stands for the word wash, while nao is a brain, as simple as that. This term was first introduced to Americans thanks to the journalist Edward Hunter and his article from 1950. in Miami Daily News. In this article, he writes about how Mao Zedong and his Red Army used ancient techniques to convert Chinese people to mindless communists.

After the US soldiers confessed some shocking things, the American public was horrified, and it was hard to find a reasonable explanation for their statements expect for brainwashing. That is when the idea of mind control blossomed in all fields of pop culture with movies such as The Manchurian Candidate and many others which featured brainwashing of POWs. It quickly became the subject of books, articles and even the American Psychiatric Association gave it credit, including brainwashing among dissociative disorders. So, did Chinese communists manage to find a way to control minds and free will? Of course, they did not.  

Many tried explaining the brainwashing process as some mysterious practice that could not be understood, but to scientists who were working on the case of the American POWs when they got back from Korea, it was pretty clear that the soldiers were tortured. One of the psychiatrists who worked with veterans reported the main criteria for brainwashing or thought reform as it was referred to by Mao Zedong. The process of brainwashing trapped American soldiers in Korean camps included deprivation of sleep and food, forced standing, exposure to communist propaganda and solitaries.


Sleep Deprivation Through History

It appears that people even centuries ago knew about the effects of sleep loss on mental health, and used it as a technique of torture and investigation. Some groups refuse to acknowledge sleep deprivation as a method of torture, but instead, they call it enhanced interrogation technique. However, extreme sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations, schizophrenia, and psychosis which can lead to wrong statements and false confessions.

Considering what we all know today, we can only assume how many people were falsely accused due to something they said while they were severely sleep deprived. So now we are going to go back through history to see how forced sleep deprivation was used as a form of torture in a few known cases.

Witch Hunting in 16th Century Scotland

Back in the notorious times of witch hunting, women who were accused of witchcraft and sorcery were hunted nationwide, captured and judged. Before people could convict them, they needed a confession from those women. To get anything that could be used against them, people tortured them by sleep depriving them for days until they begin to hallucinate. Everything that they did or said during those hallucinations or psychotic episode was considered as their confession and usually used against them as proof that they were practicing witchcraft. It sounds ridiculous from today’s point of view, but back in the days’ people were led by mass hysteria, ignorance, rumors, fear, and panic.

Japanese War Camps

There were around 175 war camps in Japan, but many more in countries that were occupied by Japan such as Thailand, China, Hong Kong, and Korea, in them civilians were mixed with military personnel (POW).

It is estimated that during the Second World War around 140.000 of military personnel were captivated since it was believed that they know some critical information. During their interrogations, many different ways of torture were used including sleep deprivation, blindfolding, meal restrictions, etc.

Apartheid in South Africa

The racial segregation movement known as Apartheid began in 1948. in South Africa and was abandoned in 1994. A famous case of sleep deprivation included a psychotherapist John Schlapobersky who was tortured in this way during the 1960s and kept awake for a whole week. He reported having hallucinations after only two nights, and after the third one, he started dreaming awake, which can be considered as a form of psychosis. Among other things, he described feeling distortion of people, time and place.

British Army

One of the most famous Britain’s POW facilities during the second world war was London Cage, run by the PWIS, prisoners of the war interrogation system. There were nine cages like that across Scotland and Southern England.

In 1971. British army performed an operation called Demetrius when 350 people were arrested because they were suspected of being involved with the Irish republican army. Prisoners reported that they were deprived of sleep, beaten, starved and abused.

Sleep deprivation was recognized as one of the five illegal interrogation methods used by the British army. Other four included hooding, wall-standing, drink and food deprivation and subjection to noise.

US Military

Before 2009. sleep deprivation was not considered for an illegal form of torture, and allegedly the US military used sleep deprivation to torture their prisoners. It was regarded as a non-physical way of torture, but although it does not leave any physical traces of harm, the United Nations (UN) still look at it as a way of torture because their definition of torture implies both, physical and mental pain or suffering.  


Effects of Long-Term Sleep Deprivation


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She would be a morning person if mornings started at noon. Art historian, taurus, coffee lover, traveler, F1 fan who hates to drive, and well experienced insomniac with one life goal, to sleep like a coala for up to 20 hours per day.

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