About 20,000 U.S. inmates are in solitary confinment in the 31 supermaxes operated by the states and the Federal Government. Push any punishment too far, says Time magazine, and mental breakdown–or at least a claim of mental breakdown–is sure to follow. A constitutional challenge can’t be far behind. Last month, officials in Texas and California conceded that the suicide rates in their prisons are on the rise, with the majority occurring among inmates in solitary.
Is solitary confinement constitutionally permissible? “We have to ask ourselves why we’re doing this,” says psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, a consultant in criminal cases. “These aren’t a bunch of cold, controlled James Cagneys. We’re taking criminals who are already unstable and driving them crazy.” One suit involving prisoners in a Wisconsin supermax has led to rulings requiring that mentally ill inmates be kept out of such facilities. The state is challenging the decisions, but “so far, the prisoners are batting a thousand on the issue of mentally ill inmates,” says David Fathi of the American Civil Liberties Union.