Supermax prisons: Hell on earth or . . . not so bad after all?
Solitary confinement: A peaceful respite for the mentally ill?
Posted Jan 06, 2011
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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