Solitary Confinement: Prisoners with Serious Mental Illness Left to Suffer Alone

A new study by Yale researchers finds that more than 4,000 prisoners with serious mental health conditions are being held in solitary confinement in US prisons, putting them at high risk.

The survey, conducted with the help of the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), looked at conditions across the US and sought to understand how many states were using solitary confinement. The research estimates that across the United States some 61,000 people were in isolation across the country by the end of 2017. That’s down from 100,000 in 2014. However, there are still major problems. Twenty five jurisdictions reported that a total of 3,500 people had been held in solitary for more than three years, with 2,000 of those same individuals having been in solitary for over six years. 

To put into perspective what that means, prisoners in solitary confinement can expect to be largely alone (save for occasional visits from prison officers and other staff) for up to 22 to 23 hours a day in a room that is around 84 feet square. You could fit one of these solitary confinement cells inside the minimum size of a horse stable and still have room to spare.

Given what we know about the racial biases that create an over-representation of non-white people in US prisons, it is unsurprising that black and hispanic men were more likely to be in solitary confinement than their white counterparts. There was also a particularly pronounced trend of younger people being put in solitary, with those aged 18 to 36 more likely to be segregated than their older counterparts.

This report did not specifically highlight transgender persons in solitary confinement, but other research has shown that, rather than actually meeting the needs of trans people and addressing their safety, prisons put trans people in solitary Some do it as a matter of routine, and therefore it is likely they are also over-represented.

“This is tragic,” said Judith Resnik, a law professor at Yale, told the Guardian. “Solitary confinement is a disabling setting that is harmful for human health and safety. It can do harm for people who are mentally OK and inflict terrible damage on people who are already mentally ill.”

It is perhaps the mental health aspect of this survey that is the most disturbing. Of the 33 states that reported figures for this survey, all but one—Texas—said that they had prisoners with diagnosed mental health conditions in solitary.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that prolonged solitary confinement has a dramatically damaging effect on a person’s mental wellbeing.

Rates of self-harm increase among prisoners put in solitary confinement. If a person already has a mental health condition, it is likely that the prolonged stress of solitary confinement will cause that mental health problem to manifest or even worsen, which in turn would put them at greater risk both should they rejoin the wider prison population and when they rejoin the general public.

Of particular concern is that solitary confinement can feed into psychosis —the disassociation from reality—which can put people at severe risk of self harming behavior as well are erratic behaviors that may inadvertently endanger other people. There is also some evidence to show that prolonged solitary confinement actually changes the physiology of our brains, making a lasting impact that could stay with a prisoner far beyond their incarceration.

Indeed, solitary confinement is so concerning that the UN Special Rapporteur Juan E. Mendez said in a 2011 report: “Solitary confinement, [as a punishment] cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution for criminal behaviour and thus constitutes an act defined [as] … torture.”

Even more devastating is that solitary confinement doesn’t work. People who have been in solitary actually have higher rates of re-offending. While we might argue that they might have been in solitary for reasons relating to their inability to regulate their behavior to begin with, clearly solitary confinement did not do anything to break them of these behavior patterns. In fact, it may have exacerbated them.   

There is some good news in this report, however. The number of prisoners in solitary confinement in most states is decreasing as we learn more about how solitary confinement’s harms far outweigh any short-term convenience for the prisons.

While there may be an argument for short-term solitary confinement of highly volatile prisoners before they can be properly assessed and channeled to a more appropriate facility, many states are now recognizing that this practice as a long-term housing strategy isn’t just wrong headed. It’s actually the equivalent of torture.

Prisoners are still people. We need to start treating them like it.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson3 months ago

Thank you.

Jetana A
Jetana A4 months ago

Since prisoners in solitary don't get to have personal possessions, books, television, cards, sunlight.... it is a sensory deprivation torture. A few days would drive most people crazy. Six years? Unbelievable!

Carole R
Carole R4 months ago

Solitary is probably the worst thing for them. They need socialization.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia4 months ago

I must say this: The prison system as well as schools and other basic societal institutions are not divorced from the general organizing factors that can be detected in society at large at that particular historical period. Think about it. What happened to the Occupy movement in the States? How did it end? Those were people who mostly were common people with no big problems in terms of prior record. Again, how were they treated? How come it was brought to an end? BTW, Oscar Lopez spent TWELVE years in solitary. The UN Committee overlooking colonialism asked repeatedly for his freedom for many years before he was liberated after 35 yrs. in prison. What about Guantanamo? US citizens have been fed the comic book version for a long time so most agree or just look the other way and sadly just as with climate change the eye opening is coming in with a jolt and a little too late! For now please watch closely the Saudi murder of the WP newsman and USA reaction and or involvement...

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia4 months ago

Thanks for this thoughtful article. I agree with Belinda.

Teresa W
Teresa W4 months ago

Belinda is right.

Belinda Lang
Belinda Lang4 months ago

Mentally ill people should be confined in mental institutions with staff trained in caring for them--not correctional facilities. Not only is the justice system broken, but also the mental health system in the United States.

Janis K
Janis K4 months ago

Our prison system is horrible and only makes money for the private owners, needs serious reform!

Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H4 months ago

thanks for the info

Margarita P
Margarita P4 months ago

I have mixed feelings. If I were incarcerated, I would be a very obvious victim for the general population, so I would prefer solitary confinement.