Sometimes referred to as “the hole,” “isolation” and “maximum lockdown,” solitary confinement cells are reserved for inmates considered a threat to the general prison population. When incarcerated, those in solitary confinement are locked away on their own for 22 to 24 hours every day. There is virtually no human contact during this period of confinement that could range from days to many years.
The term “solitary confinement” is rarely officially used — California puts prisoners in “Security Housing Units,” New York labels the locations “Special Housing Units,” Oregon calls the solitary confinement prisons “Intensive Management Units” while Pennsylvania labels them “Restricted Housing Units.”
Solitary confinement cells typically have no windows, clocks or means of communicating with the outside world other than a slot for dropping off meals. Inmates exercise one hour a day alone in an exercise room or fenced “dog run.” Some inmates are banned from having access to television, radio, art supplies and books.
In 1993, Dr. Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and Harvard faculty member, conducted comprehensive interviews with security housing unit inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California. He reported that solitary confinement triggers a psychiatric disorder causing hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive defects, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and a host of other physical and psychological disorders.
Inmates in solitary at Pelican Bay were assessed as showing elevated rates of anxiety, obsessions, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, insomnia, dizziness, perspiring hands and heart palpitations.
In 2011, Dr. Craig Haney, Ph.D., testified before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee regarding the effects of solitary confinement. He told the committee members that inmates in solitary complained of overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness and depression. Many prisoners in solitary confinement were deeply paranoid and profoundly anxious in the company of others on the rare occasions it was allowed. Dr. Haney reported that some inmates lose their grasp on sanity and badly decompensate.
As of September 1, 2011, 173 inmates out of 500 in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia were diagnosed with mental illness. In 2003, Human Rights Watch estimated, based on available state data, one-third to one half of inmates in solitary confinement had some form of mental illness.
In 1890, 125 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Miller spoke out strongly against solitary confinement. Justice Miller cited the subsequent mental illness triggered by solitary confinement, noting “in most cases [the prisoner] did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” Over 100 years later, in 1995, federal judge Thelton Henderson wrote that solitary confinement “may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable.” He said that placing the mentally ill in solitary confinement was analogous to putting an asthmatic in a place with little air.
Mental health treatment plays a pivotal role in creating well-adjusted members of society. Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a happier, fuller life free of mental illness. Sovereign Health Group in the city of Fort Meyers, Florida, offers premier treatment for mental health disorders and behavioral problems. If you or a loved one is seeking help for any of these conditions, please call 866-269-2493 to speak with a member of our team. They will be happy to assist you.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer
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