New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”
In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:
The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.
At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.
In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:
When Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on the effects of solitary confinement, toured [Mississippi’s] Unit 32 for the plaintiffs in [an] A.C.L.U. lawsuit, he found that about 100 of the more than 1,000 inmates there had serious mental illness, in many cases improperly diagnosed. Some were actively hallucinating. Others threw feces or urine at guards or howled in the night.
In turn, the mentally ill inmates were mistreated by corrections officers, who had little understanding of their condition, Dr. Kupers said. …
A study of prisoners in [California’s] Pelican Bay supermax … found that almost all reported nervousness, anxiety, lethargy or other psychological complaints. Seventy percent said they felt themselves to be at risk of “impending nervous breakdown.”
The full article is a must-read and -bookmark; I previously discussed the problem of supermax prisons here, and noted Mississippi’s closure of its notorious Unit 32 here. For the basics on the psychological discussion over whether solitary confinement amounts to torture, start with Atul Gawande’s 2009 article in the New Yorker.