Protecting the Mental Health of Prisoners

The treatment of prisoners continues to be at the forefront of global discussions on human rights. August 10th is Prisoner’s Justice Day, a day of observance that began in 1975 after Edward Nalon committed suicide in a prison segregation unit in Ontario, Canada. The day commemorates all those who have died in custody and challenges the confinement conditions that encroach on basic human rights.

Imagine spending nearly 24 hours a day alone, confined to an 8’ x 10’ windowless cell. This is the reality of approximately 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement in the United States today. Psychiatrist Terry Allen Kupers, author of Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It, shares how the psychological affects of solitary confinement can cause harm, including anxiety attacks, paranoia, depression, and other mental illness—and can sometimes lead to suicide. Solitary can be considered a practice that qualifies as an human rights abuse. And inmates have suffered by their own hand when repeated warnings about their mental stability are ignored. Legal actions continue to attempt to change the prison culture so mentally ill inmates can receive the services they need. Here, Kupers notes in Solitary:

[I]t has been known for decades that while suicide is approximately twice as prevalent in prison as it is in the community, fully half of all successful suicides that occur in a correctional system involve the 3 to 8 percent of prisoners who are in some form of isolated confinement at any given time.

It is by now clear that for prisoners prone to serious mental illness, time served in isolation exacerbates their mental illness and too often results in suicide. This is the main reason that federal courts have ruled that prisoners with serious mental illness must not be subjected to long-term isolation. Federal judge Felton Henderson, ruling in Madrid v. Gomez regarding the SHU [Special Housing Unit] at Pelican Bay State Prison, wrote: “Many if not most, inmates in the SHU experience some degree of psychological trauma in reaction to their extreme social isolation and the severely restricted environmental stimulation in SHU.” Further, he asserted, “The conditions in the SHU may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate.”

In court I argue that the harsh conditions of solitary confinement that cause severe psychiatric symptoms in previously healthy prisoners inevitably have a devastating effect on prisoners prone to mental illness. In far too many cases the effects include psychosis, mania, compulsive acts of self-abuse or suicide, and often some combination of the three.

What are your thoughts on the current criminal justice policies and the treatment of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement?


Editor Spotlight: Maura Roessner, Senior Editor for Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law and Society

MR_headshot_112414_2. Maura RoessnerIn this Q&A with Senior Editor Maura Roessner, we learn about what brought her to publishing and her plans for Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law and Society. 

Why did you become an acquisitions editor? 

It’s the perfect mix of intellectual, creative, and personal work. Back in college I worked at both the library and the university press, so I was clearly destined for one book direction or another. I did everything at that press from writing catalog copy to driving the forklift in the warehouse, but for me, there’s nothing more satisfying than working directly with authors to turn a good idea into a great product.

What projects are you working on now to develop the Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law and Society list at UC Press? 

I’ve been at UC Press for five years, developing projects not only for scholars but also for students, general readers, and practitioners. So, we have an impressive catalog of recent publications from a terrific lineup of authors, but here’s a sneak peek at a few upcoming projects:

You’re developing new textbooks and course books. Why is new content intended for use in courses important to you? 

I believe that the pursuit of justice begins in the classroom. If students learn to think critically about our systems of law and justice, they gain the tools they need to act as catalysts for change when they go on to work for, against, or near the criminal justice system.

Join Us 

Interested in publishing your work with Maura and UC Press? Contact Maura at mroessner@ucpress.edu.

And learn more about Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law and Society as well as the Higher Education Program.

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