Solitary Used More Often for Inmates with Mental Illness: Study

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Harlem, NY protest against solitary confinement. Photo by Felton Davis via Flickr

Inmates with mental illness are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than other inmates, and are more likely to be punished with administrative segregation compared with other less disciplinary actions, according to a study published in the Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Kyleigh Clark, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Facilities, which questioned inmates on a wide range of topics including their behavior, criminal histories, personal backgrounds, and experiences within and outside of prison.

The survey also specifically asked inmates whether they have been diagnosed by a medical professional prior to incarceration with various mental disorders: depressive, psychotic, personality, manic/bipolar, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or any other disorders.

The researcher compared the experiences of those with mental illness to those without them and found that even though both groups most often lose privileges for misconduct, the odds of those with a mental illness being put in solitary confinement for misconduct are 36 percent higher than those without mental illness.

Furthermore, those with mental illnesses are 40 percent less likely to be given other, less severe disciplinary action, 27 percent less likely to lose privileges or be confined to their own cell, 23 percent less likely to be given extra work, and 19 percent less likely to be given bad time.

It is not clear why inmates with mental illnesses are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, but one possible explanation the author suggests is that prison management may be paying more attention to those with mental illnesses, or more attention to the actions of those with mental illnesses, and this in turn results in more infractions and harsher punishments.

Relatedly, people with mental illness are viewed as dangerous to themselves and to others, the author explained.

“[And] because many institutions suffer from a lack of resources, space, and staffing, isolation of mentally ill prisoners can be seen as the only viable option in dealing with these inmates,” Clark added.

About 37 percent of inmates have mental illness, according to U.S. Department of Justice.

The researcher excluded inmates in federal facilities due to possible unmeasured factors in those prisons that may affect their use of segregation, such as intuitional structures. The sample was further restricted to those who committed at least on misconduct during their incarceration and were not missing data for mental illness and disciplinary action

The author argued that despite news stories outlining the problematic use of isolation for mentally ill inmates, the issues had not been extensively researched until now.

He said future research should investigate whether imposing solitary confinement on mentally ill inmates, even ostensibly for their own protection, is ultimately “counterproductive.”

“Multiple studies have shown that those with mental health problems may be more susceptible to the negative effects of solitary confinement, thereby creating a cycle in which mentally ill offenders are put in solitary confinement due to their mental illness, which is made worse by isolation, leading to further or worsening symptomatic behavior,” he wrote.

“Although solitary confinement may be considered a more economical or practical choice for containing these inmates, better mental health care can be more cost effective in treating their behavior.”

A copy of the study can be downloaded here.

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR News Intern. He welcomes comments from readers.

One thought on “Solitary Used More Often for Inmates with Mental Illness: Study

  1. Pingback: Seven Days in Solitary [9/23/18] | Solitary Watch

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