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The Effects of Solitary Confinement on Mental Health

October 12, 2012

Last week, an article entitled “Prisoners’ Letters Offer a Window Into Lives Spent Alone in Tiny Cells” was published in The New York Times. The piece describes how hundreds of male prisoners in New York have been writing letters to the New York Civil Liberties Union in support of their efforts to narrow the criteria necessary in order to put inmates in solitary confinement. The prisoners, many of whom have preexisting mental health problems, allege that their isolation has caused or exacerbated their rage, anxiety, paranoia, and schizophrenic tendencies, but they are currently being met with little to no sympathy from prison staff. The article states that they have landed in solitary confinement for various reasons as serious as violently attacking their fellow inmates or guards, and as fairly mundane as fighting, smoking, and doing drugs.

Their stays in isolation range from weeks to years, and their letters reflect the unsettling reality that their alienation may very well be causing or at least contributing to the disintegration of their mental health. The article suggests that the letters may play an important role in the ongoing debate about whether or not solitary confinement is a humane practice. I think this issue relates to the sociological school of thought with regard to mental health, especially if some inmates didn’t suffer any debilitating symptoms prior to their stay in solitary confinement. It’s easy to see how experiencing isolation for such long periods of time could lead to mental deterioration being that the environment is so unforgiving. It would be interesting to see if any serious symptoms of mental illness disappear after the prisoners are released from isolation.

Interestingly, the article states that many of the prisoners have accepted responsibility for the crimes that landed them in prison in the first place, and they only question why their behavior on the inside warrants such harsh punishment. It seems to me that inmates who grasp the severity of their actions should be accepting of the consequences, as long as those consequences are just. In this case, it appears they are not.


Gail Francis



2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2012 11:36 pm

    Hey Gail,

    I read the same New York Times article that you did. I am in complete agreement that isolation (especially the extreme form that solitary confinement creates) can have nothing but negative effects on a human being. It’s just depressing to truly stop and try to imagine yourself as one of these prisoners. At the end of the article, one inmate does a good job at captivating the conditions that these human beings are exposed to:

    “The water from the sink is a milky color. It’s not white but its definitely not clear. Our shower is extremely hot and drips even after we cut it off — nonstop. Due to the moisture from the shower and the sink, we now are beginning to notice knats, also known as ‘fruit flies.’ The walls are marked with gang signs, demonic drawings, mucus, feces and rust. We are not allowed to disinfect our cells. There is toothpaste hard and flaky on my lights, walls, bed, ceiling, doors and vents. On my shower there is numerous stickers, mildoo, soap residoo, and what appears to be little spots of dried blood.”

    There is a dilemma that I face when contemplating the prison system. These people are prisoners for a reason. They did something wrong. Murder, rape, theft, etc. are all offenses that are not acceptable. One can argue that people who commit such acts of deviance deserve to be punished. So then the question arises: should prisons be institutions of correction or institutions of punishment? If prisons are meant to be institutions of correction (which is the typical, fluffy language that they like to use), then the conditions described above in no way aid correction. Those conditions only cultivate more problems and like you said “disintegrate” the mental health of prisoners. If prisons are meant to be institutions of punishment, then one cannot really be displeased with the typical conditions listed above. As you point out, the prisoners are receiving little to no sympathy from the prison staff. How much sympathy do they deserve after killing or raping someone?

    So how do we balance this dilemma of wanting the prison system to be both a place of punishment and at the same time a place of correction? That is the dilemma that I face when contemplating the prison system. It is a dilemma that can wait for a later discussion. The fact of the matter is that prisons never refer to themselves as “punishment facilities.” They always mask themselves with a title like “correctional facility.” If the prisons are claiming to be correctional facilities then they need to be such. They need to help mental illnesses rather than create them. Do they need saunas and hot tubs? – Hardly. Could they get rid of the demonic drawings and blood stains? – That may be a good start.

    Brandon Weist

  2. November 2, 2012 9:46 pm

    I have always found this to be a very interesting topic of debate,
    one that has been spoken of in my other classes as ell. I don’t
    support the idea of solitary confinement except in the most extreme
    cases, where even then I am unsure of my standing. I think it is
    completely inhumane and furthering the problem, only relieving the
    prisoners violent behavior for a short time while they are locked up,
    but furthering their mental instability. I think this seems to be a
    very outdated practice, and should be treated as such and no longer
    used in our prisons today. One of the comments left on the original
    article I found to be so interesting and spot on about how I feel the
    solitary confinement perpetuates worse behavior:
    “If more guns by citizens were making us safer this society would not
    be as dangerous as it is. If executing people for serious crimes were
    a deterrent to crime, Texas would be the safest place on earth. If
    torturing people yielded valuable & reliable intelligence, we would
    have been finished in Afghanistan long ago. If treating prisoners like
    animals rehabilitated the convicted or deterred crime, we would not
    have the rate of recidivism our nation has.
    These issues are all related, as are the way we handle the mentally
    ill, the disabled, the addicted & others at the margins of society.
    Simply locking people up & brutalizing them is not only inhumane,
    immoral and unethical- it does not work. Furthermore, we cannot afford
    to continue on this path.”

    Anna Vendrasco

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