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.


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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