Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

Supermax prisons: Hell on earth or . . . not so bad after all?

Solitary confinement: A peaceful respite for the mentally ill?

Segregation Housing 1
Herman Wallace's sketch of his cell, Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola
I naively thought everyone knew that being locked up alone in a tiny cell -- sometimes for years at a stretch -- is bad for one's psyche.

But I was wrong. Based on a one-year project with the Colorado Department of Corrections, a group of researchers says there is a dearth of evidence to support the popular notion that solitary confinement exacerbates psychiatric symptoms among mentally ill prisoners. Although the prisoners they studied did manifest problems, these were preexisting and so could not be attributed to the effects of administrative segregation confinement, the researchers contend.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I was dubious when I heard the researchers present their study, "One-Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation," at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in San Diego last year. Having worked in a Segregated Housing Unit ("SHU") for mentally ill prisoners, I saw with my own eyes the rapid and profound mental deterioration of mentally ill prisoners assigned to the SHU.

Segregation Housing 3
Tommy Silverstein's sketch of his cell, ADX federal supermax, Florence, Colorado
Even prisoners who had no preexisting mental disorders fell apart when subjected to prolonged isolation. I will never forget one youngster, a first-timer incarcerated for violating probation in a minor stolen property case, who was sent to the SHU for protection after he reported being raped by his cellmate. They ended up taking him out on a stretcher following a serious suicide attempt. The last time I saw him, when I visited him on the medical ward of a maximum-security prison, he was a totally different person from the happy-go-lucky kid I had known.

But he started out healthy. Maybe, contrary to popular wisdom, the mentally ill have more robust psyches than everyone else. Or maybe they are just masochistic. Anyway, I'm just telling you my own personal anecdotes. That's not science.

Study under fire

The

Segregation Housing 4
Prisoner sketch of SHU housing, Pelican Bay, California
report is generating a lot of heat from those who fear it will be used to legitimize continued warehousing of mentally ill prisoners in SHU's. The American Civil Liberties Union has issued a statement pointing out that the Colorado findings contradict a sizeable body of research, not to mention common sense.

Two leading experts on prison conditions, psychiatrists Terry Kupers and Stuart Grassian, are publicly assailing the study as fatally flawed. They criticize the researchers for not conducting interviews with the prisoners who were the subjects of the year-long study.

"The methodology of the study is so deeply flawed that I would consider the conclusions almost entirely erroneous," said Kupers, author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars. "And far from finding 'no harm,' there were many episodes of psychosis and suicidal behavior during the course of the study -- the researchers merely minimize the emotional pain and suffering because they judge the prisoners to have been already damaged before they arrived at supermax."

Protective cell, county jail
My sketch of a suicidal prisoner whom I observed chained to the floor of a bare concrete "protective" cell
Grassian, the former Harvard professor who coined the term segregation psychosis and who has done research with hundreds of prisoners in solitary confinement, said he notified the researchers of several severe methodological flaws, including a failure to analyze contradictory data, but the problems were not rectified.

Grassian said the prison's own records document almost two incidents of suicidal or self-destructive behavior for every three prisoners in solitary confinement (63%), compared with less than one incident for every ten prisoners (9%) in the general population.

Since the supermax craze took off in the early 1990s, almost every U.S. state has signed on to the dubious concept, and an estimated 25,000 American prisoners are now locked 24/7 in these tiny, antiseptic cubicles. Although SHU housing was originally intended for relatively short terms of confinement, nowadays prisoners may remain in these constantly lit and electronically surveilled sensory deprivation holes for years -- or even decades. A federal court recently agreed to hear a challenge brought by a man named Tommy Silverstein who has spent a whopping 27 years in solitary confinement.

If they had just talked with the prisoners ...

While the Colorado correctional researchers were busy tabulating survey data instead of talking with the prisoners themselves about their subjective experiences, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley took the exact opposite approach, and -- not surprisingly -- came to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Keramet Reiter's series of in-depth interviews with former SHU prisoners in California, far and away the world's leader with about 3,330 SHU prisoners, was part of her research into the rise of supermaximum confinement in America.

The settings that the men chose was telling in and of itself: After years in tiny, concrete-filled boxes, almost all asked to meet her either outdoors of close to a window.

Reiter told University of California reporter Cathy Cockrell that she was moved by the former prisoners' tragic accounts of the effects of sensory deprivation.

People spoke of having no clocks, daylight, or seasons to mark the passage of time; growing pale from lack of sunlight; and being amazed at the sight of a single bird, insect, or even the moon, after months or years of virtually no exposure to the natural world.

But, hey, maybe if they had been mentally ill to start with, they wouldn't have minded so much. Just a serene vacation, away from the hubbub and stress of general population housing.

Further resources:

Keramet Reiter: Parole, snitch or die: California's supermax prisons and prisoners, 1987-2007, July 7, 2010

Atul Gawande, New Yorker magazine: Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture? March 30, 2009

National Public Radio series: "Life in Solitary Confinement"

Solitary Watch: On Bradley Manning, Solitary Confinement, and Selective Outrage, by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Jan. 2, 2011

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

more...

Subscribe to Witness

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?