A federal report noted that inmates in federal prison with mental illness spend more time in solitary confinement or restrictive housing than inmates without documented mental illness. While Bureau of Prison regulations prohibit the isolation of prisoners who show evidence of a significant mental disorder, the evidence indicates that the practice still remains in essence. There are some factors that can lead to mentally ill inmates being placed in solitary confinement and there is evidence that these inmates may suffer more as result of such punishment.
Factors Leading to Solitary Confinement
With such high numbers of inmates suffering from mental illness, it has become a cliché that prisons are the new mental health facilities. Many inmates have a mental illness that goes undiagnosed or is not treated while they are in prison. Mental illness can manifest in strange behavior and rule breaking. Rule infractions can lead to punishment such as placement in solitary confinement. In addition, acts of self-harm and threats of suicide can lead mentally ill inmates to be placed in solitary confinement. According to the federal report, 29% of inmates demonstrating psychological distress have been put in solitary confinement.
Exacerbation of Symptoms
Sensory stimulation and social contact are extremely limited in solitary confinement. Inmates in solitary confinement are typically alone in their cells for twenty-three hours a day. These conditions can cause physiological and psychological distress for any inmate. Most inmates in solitary confinement experience some type of emotional, cognitive, or psychosis-related symptoms. Research has shown that spending time in solitary confinement makes people depressed, anxious, socially withdrawn, paranoid, and ultimately more violent.
Longer stays in solitary confinement can exacerbate mental health issues that are already present. Symptoms such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and even psychosis can become more pronounced due to isolation. This can lead to higher incidences of self-harm and suicide among inmates with mental illness.
Limiting Solitary Confinement
Some states have started limiting the amount of time that inmates with mental illness can stay in solitary confinement. The federal report cites six state department of corrections officers claiming that Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New York enacted at least a 30-day limit for solitary stays, and Colorado, Maine, and Pennsylvania have discontinued putting inmates with mental illnesses in solitary confinement.
If you or a loved one has mental illness and has been arrested or convicted of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. Elizabeth Kelley specializes in representing individuals with mental illnesses. To schedule a consultation call (509) 991-7058.