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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.


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?