The Psychological Damage of Solitary Confinement

“When I testify in court, I am often asked: ‘What is the damage of long-term solitary confinement?’ . . . Many prisoners emerge from prison after years in solitary with very serious psychiatric symptoms even though outwardly they may appear emotionally stable. The damage from isolation is dreadfully real.”
—Terry Allen Kupers, author of Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It

For World Mental Health Day, we recognize the prisoners who serve time in solitary confinement. When people discuss mass incarceration, the mental and emotional health of prisoners may not always be at the forefront of discussions. #MentalHealthDay

Terry Allen Kupers, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the mental health effects of solitary confinement, shares his role in exposing the effects of solitary confinement on incarcerated people. In a recent interview with Colorlines, Kupers says, “I testify about inhumane and unconstitutional conditions of confinement… After I have done my investigation, the county or state’s attorneys depose me under oath. Some large class actions are settled at that point. Some go to trial, and then I testify in court as a psychiatric expert. After I describe unconstitutional and abusive conditions and practices, I am asked what remedies I would recommend, and that’s when I have an opportunity to share with the judge or jury the proven effective alternatives to prison crowding and solitary confinement.”

On Rising Up with Sonali, Kupers describes the detrimental impact of solitary confinement on the human brain. Kupers notes that isolation “very much damages brain structure and lays down pathways that cause dysfunction.” And for those incarcerated people with existing mental illness, “isolation exacerbates their mental illness, makes their prognosis much worse, makes their disability greater, and in the end, they get out of prison unable to function in the community.”

Read an excerpt of Solitary. And share your thoughts below in the comments section on the mental well-being of incarcerated people in solitary confinement.

Why Jail Can Become a Safety Net for Pregnant Women

As discussions about reproductive justice and women’s rights as human rights continue, we mustn’t forget that these same rights should apply to pregnant women behind bars.

Carolyn Sufrin, author of Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars, recently discussed how the repeal of the Affordable Care Act could negatively affect pregnant women in prison—many of whom are women of color and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite a 1976 Supreme Court Case stating that prisons and jails are constitutionally mandated to provide health care to incarcerated persons, pregnant incarcerated women are still neglected and mistreated.

Many imprisoned women are in jail and prison for non-violent crimes, most times involving drugs. Most recently in an interview with Rewire, Sufrin states: “With the criminalization of drug use during pregnancy, although there was some recent encouraging news in Wisconsin, we have to be concerned that we’re going to see these laws and enforcement increase. Instead of investing in drug treatment and mental health treatment, women are going to be criminalized. The appointment of Jeff Sessions [Attorney General of the United States] and his commitment to roll back the progress of criminal justice system reform are deeply tied to the rollback on health-care reforms and reinvesting in safety net programs. It’s all tied together and only going to make things worse for women in the criminal justice system.”

In Jailcare, Sufrin writes:

Since the 1980s’ escalation of “the war on drugs,” the United States has seen an exponential rise in the number of people behind bars, from 501,886 in 1980 to 2,173,800 in 2015. The U. S. holds only 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. We incarcerate more women than Russia, China, Thailand, and India combined. Blacks have been disproportionately targeted, imprisoned at a rate that is more than five times that of whites, a statistical fact which reflects the continuities between racist criminal justice system policies and plantation slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Amid this expansion, women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. And yet incarcerated women and their health needs remain consistently excluded from public discussions of mass incarceration.

Numerous scholars have chronicled the rise of mass imprisonment, arguing that the phenomenon reflects not a response to a rise in violent crime, but the “penal treatment of poverty.” Put simply, where the state once had a strong moral and financial investment in robust public services for the poor, it now invests in an increasingly large and punitive penal system to manage them. The public safety net has failed to help millions of people stabilize lives made precarious by inequality and trauma.

Sufrin believes that “it’s possible to advocate for improved health care inside jails at the same time we advocate for improved services and criminal justice reforms outside of jail. … We can advocate for those kinds of changes while also ensuring that the care [pregnant incarcerated women] receive while they’re in jail meets the community standard of care and is comprehensive. This does not mean that we should make jails less safe or less resourced to provide health care so that we can make communities more resourced. We need to work on both at the same time.”

Carolyn Sufrin is a medical anthropologist and an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Learn more about Jailcare at

Racial Criminalization and the Rise of Neoliberal Capitalism

By Jordan T. Camp, author of Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State.

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Denver. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

In the epilogue to his memoir No Name in the Street (1972), James Baldwin explained: “An old world is dying . . . and a new one . . . announces that it is ready to be born.” Having witnessed struggles for freedom among those who had been displaced and dispossessed by joblessness, housing segregation, and aggressive policing in the postwar era, Baldwin keenly observed that the grammar of racial and class formation was shifting—a transition that would cruelly shape the decades to come. He depicted a dialectical process through which freedom struggles against Jim Crow were represented in terms of rebellion, security, and, as he described, “the forces of law and order.”

9780520281820In fact, the growing scale of the long civil rights movement led to an increase in mass arrest, confinement, and mass incarceration. At the same time, unemployment, urban poverty, and homelessness soon became permanent features of the political economy. With the highest rate of incarceration on the planet, the U.S. imprisons more Black people than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. These dynamics bespeak a collision of race, class, and state power without historical precedent, but certainly not without historical explanation.

Incarcerating the Crisis traces the roots of the carceral crisis through a series of turning points in U.S. history, including the urban and prison uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s, the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, and post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005. I argue that these instances of state violence and racial criminalization marked the rise of neoliberal capitalism. To make this case, my study takes seriously the poetic visions of social movements including those articulated by James Baldwin, June Jordan, and José Ramírez. Drawing on this alternative archive, the book suggests that the making of the neoliberal carceral state was not inevitable and urgently calls for a new world, still waiting to be born.

Jordan T. Camp is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State is available now.

Black against Empire and Banned Books Week

By Niels Hooper, Executive Editor at UC Press

I don’t know whether to be concerned that state officials are still afraid of the Black Panthers, or take it as badge of honor that these words really do have power, but we have just been notified that American Book Award winner Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr. has just become a banned book! We’re republishing it, with a striking new cover courtesy of Shepard Fairey, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party here in Oakland CA.

Black Against Empire new cover

As Alicia Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter network says, “I read Black against Empire while on sabbatical, and it changed something in me. #BlackLivesMatter was created just a few months later. The political history of one of the most misunderstood black political efforts in our nation’s history, Black against Empire offers important considerations for today’s black liberation movement.” Banning Black Against Empire in California prisons, like trying to keep news of today’s prison strike from getting out, only makes matters worse.

Letter banning black against empire

You can pre-order the new edition of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, With a New Preface on our website or wherever books are sold.

Niels Hooper is Executive Editor at UC Press. He has a B.A. in Modern History from Oxford University and an M.A. in History and African-American Studies from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining UC Press he worked at Verso Books in New York, at first running North American publicity, sales, and marketing, and later joining Verso’s editorial board and becoming the US General Manager.