More than 300 inmates in Los Angeles’ antiquated Men’s Central Jail live in near-total solitude, deprived of meaningful human contact either because they misbehaved behind bars or because officials believe they must be kept away from others for safety reasons. Another 100, including women, are doing their time in solitary “restrictive housing” units at jails elsewhere in the county, the Los Angeles Times reports. Throughout the nation, state prisons have come under scrutiny because of concerns that inmates who are deprived of social contact in solitary confinement can suffer serious psychological damage. Last year, the California prison system reduced the population of its Solitary Housing Unit by thousands of inmates, joining states such as Colorado, Mississippi, Maine, and North Carolina that have made similar changes.
Long-term isolation in county lockups, where most inmates are awaiting trial or serving short sentences, has largely remained a hidden issue. In Los Angeles County, the average stay in restrictive housing is more than a year — shorter than the decades that some state prisoners spent in solitary but still plenty of time to experience debilitating psychological effects. The symptoms, which include paranoia and hallucinations, can continue even after an inmate goes home. “A silent damage of jail incarceration is that people spend time in solitary,” said Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who has researched the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the L.A. County jails. Last year, sheriff’s officials embarked on a series of changes designed to reduce the solitary population and provide more social contact for those who remain, making L.A. County one of the few jail systems to do so.