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Is This The End of Solitary Confinement?

A look at the future of this damaging practice.

by Adam Lewis
Jan 4 2017, 6:52pm

Darren Klimek/Getty Images

VICE producer James Burns has been livestreaming his monthlong stay in solitary confinement since December 12, 2016, to drive attention to the use of this form of punishment in US prisons. 

Not that facts matter anymore, but back when they used to, they had a remarkable ability to drive policy change during public health emergencies, even among unpopular groups of patients. Look no further than famous fact-denier Mike Pence, whose solution of "praying the virus away" was failing to control an HIV outbreak among heroin users in Indiana. Eventually swayed by studies showing that distributing clean needles was the most effective infection-prevention policy, Governor Pence begrudgingly bowed to the altar of fact and lifted the state's ban on needle-exchange programs, slowing the HIV crisis.

You don't have to be a brain surgeon (or epidemiologist, as it were) to see how acting on basic public health knowledge can go a long way in keeping society healthy, even the parts of society we tend to cast aside. It's no surprise then that our failure to act on the facts around solitary confinement has led to a mental health epidemic that reaches well beyond the prison walls. This is the central focus of VICE's ongoing project streaming live from a solitary cell.

In the US today, there are nearly 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement, where they spend all but an hour a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell, in total isolation. While some solitary sentences—determined not by a court, but by a jury of one's guards—could last a few days, many continue for years, and almost all produce an inmate in worse psychological condition than when he entered. Since most prisoners will eventually walk free, the current use of solitary has yielded a breeding ground for mental illness that affects millions of Americans. 

Far from an issue that flies under the public health radar, solitary's disastrous effects on mental health have been documented for centuries. In the early 1800s, the US pioneered the practice as a "more humane" form of incarceration, but the results were devastating. Early studies, supported by observations from Charles Dickens to the Supreme Court, found that rather than rehabilitating inmates, solitary destroyed their mental health. Indeed, as one expert puts it, "[n]early every scientific inquiry into the effects of solitary confinement over the past 150 years has concluded that subjecting an individual to more than ten days of involuntary segregation results in a distinct set of emotional, cognitive, social and physical pathologies." 

The US abandoned the practice for most of the 20th century until the 1970s and 80s, when prison populations ballooned as a result of the War on Drugs and a national push toward mass incarceration. Prisons soon returned to solitary confinement as an inmate-management strategy.

"The use of solitary tracks directly with the rise in mass incarceration," says Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, a watchdog group that tracks solitary confinement in the US. "Up until the 1980s, there was at least some lip service paid to rehabilitation. Then things became all about control and punishment. And eventually the practice of solitary confinement became the control measure of first resort." 

This punitive isolation wreaks havoc on inmates' brains with virtually no evidence of reducing violence, explains Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming book Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It

"Stable prisoners who enter solitary will almost immediately develop anxiety, paranoia, compulsive behavior, memory loss, anger, despair, and suicidal thoughts," Kupers says. "And those who already suffer from a mental illness like bipolar disorder or depression will see their condition significantly exacerbated."

Solitary's mental health impact goes well beyond the individual. With limited visitation rights, prisoners are rarely allowed to see family and friends—quite literally their only source of connection to a world outside their own brain, which is quite literally corroding. And by the time they return home, as 95 percent of prisoners do, their depression, anger or general dysfunction affects everyone around them. They often can't stomach any human contact at all, suffering from what Kupers calls "SHU [special housing unit] syndrome."

Then there are the officers tasked with guarding psychologically-damaged inmates in a culture of deep violence. Bryanna Mellen, whose father was a correctional officer in Massachusetts for 22 years, described her father's mental decline over his career before he took his own life in 2011. 

"He never wanted to talk about work," she tells me. "He wasn't in the mood to tell us about the inmate who tried to kill himself that day. Even in retirement he was increasingly paranoid and depressed." Bryanna has since founded the On Guard Initiative to raise awareness about mental health among correctional officers.

In many ways, the psychological damage caused by solitary is infectious; too potent for steel bars, too noxious for fiberglass windows. And in this case, the infected are a social class below lepers, serving what amounts to a life sentence regardless of their crime. Casella maintains that they're "the most dehumanized members of our society." Casella also notes that the racial disparity in solitary is greater than in the general prison population.

Fortunately, the facts about solitary are slowly creeping into public view. The practice is now banned in most of Europe and considered torture by the United Nations. President Obama went as far as outlawing it among juveniles. US prisons are also beginning to heed the imperative to change.

Several state correctional departments have instituted "step-down" programs to ease inmates out of solitary, into the general prison population, and eventually back into society. States like Colorado and New York are leading the way with new policies supported by mental health research, and individual prisons, like Algers Correctional Facility in Michigan, are testing out incentives programs rooted in perks for good behavior as opposed to punitive measures for (justifiably) bad behavior. Kupers recommends "intermediate" rehabilitation approaches—halfway houses of sorts that focus on "skill-building for managing mental health and collaborating with others."

There may be no one-size-fits-all solution for the mental health epidemic currently plaguing solitary inmates and those who love or guard them, but a six-by-nine-foot cell is a size that fits no one, certainly not for years on end. Whether our criminal justice system is centered on fairness, safety, rehabilitation, punishment, or some other goal, solitary confinement yields the opposite, fostering injustice, violence, mental and physical atrophy, and a lifetime of pain for anyone who interacts with it. The public's health depends on changing it. Or at least that's what the facts say.

Update 1/4/17: A previous version of this story quoted Jean Cassella as saying solitary "was initially used as a control measure, with some lip service paid to rehabilitation. But eventually the practice became less about removing a criminal from society and rehabilitating him, and more about active punishment."