How Solitary Confinement Can Drive Inmates to Suicidal Thoughts

"Some people think that solitary confinement is basically just spending some alone time," one former prisoner says. "It's not. It's like being buried alive."

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Jun 10 2015, 4:00pm

Solitary cells in the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Photo via Flickr user DieselDemon

I am no stranger to a prison cell or the hopelessness and desperation that can overcome a person residing in one. Luckily, I never had any strong suicidal inclinations during my incarceration in the federal system, but I would be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind. When there is little or no light at the end of the tunnel, all hope can be lost.

So is it a surprise that prisoners and even ex-prisoners like Kalief Browder, the Bronx teenager who spent three years in a New York City jail—most of that in solitary confinement—without a trial, are resorting to suicide?

As our nation's prison population has grown, so has the number of inmates who have done significant solitary confinement time. Being in prison is a dark situation generally, of course, but being locked down in what is alternately termed a special housing unit or "the hole" can be truly and utterly disheartening. It can exacerbate lingering or dormant mental conditions, character defects or personality disorders. It can leave the prisoner feeling as if they are on the edge of a cliff, walking a tightrope and ready to fall into the ravine with one false step.

"I was only in solitary confinement for a matter of days, but I fervently wanted to die," K.L. Blakinger, who served time in a women's prison in New York, tells VICE. "Had I been in there longer, I surely would have figured out a way. I had a previous suicide attempt in 2007, before my incarceration. I jumped off a bridge. Anyone with that sort of mental health history probably should not be placed in solitary confinement. I spent time contemplating whether I could stand on the sink and fall onto the desk at such an angle that I would crack my head open and die."

Studies and statistics back up this sort of anecdotal evidence. From a 2014 ACLU paper:

A February 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that detainees in solitary confinement in New York City jails were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves than those in general population, and that the effect was particularly pronounced for youth and people with severe mental illness. In California prisons in 2004, 73% of all suicides occurred in isolation units—though these units accounted for less than 10% of the state's total prison population. In the Indiana Department of Corrections, the rate of suicides in segregation was almost three times that of other housing units.

The total and complete feeling of powerlessness can overwhelm an individual in solitary. Being locked down 24/7 in a ten-by-six cell with a slot in the door to receive your food and no access to the outside world or even other people can be devastating. The guards don't care if you are coping with the situation or not. Their job is to count you and feed you. In my experience in the feds, once a week a person from the psychology staff comes around and asks if you are OK. That's the only mental health concern that a person in the hole gets.

Related: The VICE Guide to Mental Health

I always thought solitary was a joke. I spent numerous months in the hole due to my writing activities. I would be on my bunk sleeping, writing or reading a book, and some staff member from the psychology department would knock on the door and ask me if I was OK. I felt like screaming back at them, "What do you mean am I OK? I'm fucking locked up in a little room for weeks on end! Would you be OK?"

I never did, though, instead just sucking it up and carrying on. But what about those that don't have the strength or wherewithal to do that?

"I think that to a lot of people, solitary confinement doesn't sound as horrific as it is," Blakinger says. "I think it is difficult to truly understand the mental stresses of solitary until you've actually been there. Some people think that solitary confinement is basically just spending some alone time. It's not. It's like being buried alive."

In prison you can get thrown into the hole for any reason. When you're on a prison compound, you have a semblance of a life. You develop a routine, you stay busy and occupied working out, reading books, taking college or adult continuing education classes, playing cards or chess, watching TV, going to the library, working your assigned job, or even just walking around the yard with your homeboy. But when you're thrown in the hole for any minor transgression, your whole world is interrupted.

Time stops.

Being in the hole, you have to readjust. It's like serious slow-down time. You have to find a way to structure your days so that the time still passes and you aren't sitting in the cell going stir crazy, because it will drive you off the deep end if you don't take measures to combat the desolation. I used to work my days around eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner; going to recreation (for one hour, five days a week when it was provided); getting mail, books, and newspapers to read; and spending time writing and exercising (burpees, pushups, and sit-ups in my cell). That's how I got through the extensive hole time that I did.

But not all inmates can cope.

"After decades of research and civil rights litigation, we know that the vast majority of self-harm and suicides in prison, jails, and juvenile detention centers occur in solitary confinement units across the country," Amy Fettig, the head of the ACLU's Stop Solitary campaign and a senior staff attorney with the National Prison Project, tells VICE. "Suicide is strongly associated with solitary confinement—especially for children and individuals with mental illnesses. Researchers have found that the conditions of extreme social and environmental deprivation in solitary confinement units cause a variety of negative physiological and psychological reactions, such as hallucinations, sleeplessness, severe and chronic depression, self-mutilation, rage, anxiety, paranoia, and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days—even in individuals who formerly had no mental illness."

I used to liken getting out of the hole and returning to the regular prison mainline to being released from jail. When the guards tell you to pack it up and roll up your stuff, you get excited just to be back on the yard. It's like a weight is lifted off your shoulder: Finally, I can get away from this stifling and restrictive environment before it drives me crazy. I remember sitting in the hole and being so angry that there was nothing I could do, because even if I banged on the doors, no one cared. Even if I screamed at the top of my lungs, no one cared. Even if I argued how unfair it was for me to be in there, no one cared. That was just the reality of it.

And I was supposedly in my right mind, meaning I didn't suffer from any mental illnesses.

"Despite the SHU Exclusion Law—which theoretically keeps inmates with major mental health issues out of solitary confinement—New York State still routinely places inmates with suicidal tendencies, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems in solitary confinement." Blakinger says. "Just because not every inmate in solitary kills themselves—and just because we do not have more Kalief Browders—does not somehow mean that this is OK, or that people are not suffering."

Placing prisoners in the hole almost certainly increases their risk of committing suicide, even if they suffer from no mental illnesses. Of course, the impact on those with a preexisting condition is just that much worse.

"The federal courts have found that placing individuals with serious mental illnesses in solitary confinement violates the Eight Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Despite this, tens of thousands remain in solitary confinement in they country where they are harmed. And too often, they kill themselves," Fettig says.

Even for those who survive, solitary confinement does damage. I don't believe I suffer from any lingering issues, but I've only been out of prison for ten months. I have to keep myself in check at all times and stay very busy, or I'm prone to fall into fits of rage. Nothing too dramatic or out of control, but I have a lot of pent-up anger at my unjust prison sentence—for selling LSD in the early 90s—and the hole time I was forced to endure due to my writing efforts. It's something for me to keep an eye on in the years to come.

"Solitary confinement takes damaged people—many with mental health issues—and damages them more." Blakinger says. "As a result, it ends up being a threat to public safety. If we punish people in a way that has a strong potential for making them less stable and more dangerous, we are undermine the public safety goals that correctional facilities theoretically have. If we want to, as a nation, continue to engage in this level of punitive treatment, we need to admit that it is vengeance and not rehabilitation, correction, or public safety that is truly the goal here."

Until we reform our criminal justice and correctional practices, prisoners and former prisoners will continue to commit suicide as they do their time—or when they try to re-assimilate back into society. Even in Sweden, a country not exactly known for its harsh prison system, ex-cons have been found to be at increased risk of suicide after being released. Serving the time you are sentenced to is supposed to be the punishment, but all too often there are lingering effects from the sentence imposed.

In a lot of cases, damaged people are going in, and they are coming out far worse. That shows how truly broken our criminal justice system is.

If you are struggling with depression or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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