Prison Policy Initiative: Studies Show that Solitary Confinement Linked to Higher Likelihood of Inmate Death

Prison Policy Initiative: Studies Show that Solitary Confinement Linked to Higher Likelihood of Inmate Death

The treatment of prisoners has already been a hot topic due to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons across the state. Now, a study from UNC – Chapel Hill shows inmates are more likely to die when they spend time in solitary.

Previous studies have shown the negative effect solitary confinement has on inmates. But this one shows that its effects last long after inmates leave solitary, even after they leave prison. The study also suggests that solitary confinement leads to slightly higher levels of death by suicide, overdose and homicide. Wanda Bertram and Andrea Fenster of Prison Policy Initiative say action needs to be taken now.

A report from the American Psychological Association highlights how harmful solitary confinement can be: cells are often the size of a large bed, and there is almost no human contact. These circumstances often leave inmates in poor mental state, as they can suffer from panic attacks, paranoia and even hallucinations.

The Numbers

Solitary confinement is widespread across the country. There are 80,000 people in isolation each day. Another study suggests in  a single year, 10,000 people go straight from solitary to release. The first few weeks someone gets out of solitary are especially critical to their future actions.

Prison Policy Initiative Solitary Confinement North Carolina
Image courtesy of Camilo Jimenez at Unsplash.

The UNC study looked at two groups of inmates from 2000 to 2016: those who experienced solitary and those who did not. It also paid attention to three different kinds of deaths: suicides, homicides and opioid overdoses. Overall, the results showed only small differences in suicide and overdose outcomes, but a more significant disparity in the rate of death by homicide.

More specifically, 9% of people who spent no time in solitary died from opioid overdose, compared to 10% of those who were in solitary. Meanwhile, 4% of those with no time in solitary died of suicide, compared to 6% of those with solitary experience. Again, homicide outcomes show the biggest discrepancy of all. While only 7% of those who didn’t experience solitary died of homicide, 16% of those who did were killed.

Reentering Society is a Dangerous Time

Reentering society after release is already difficult for inmates, according to Wanda Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative. She says the new study “builds on what we know about solitary … it can cause or aggravate … health problems.”

Other studies show former inmates die at an increased rate their first few weeks home. These are often deaths by suicide, homicide, overdose, or heart issues. Fenster says that inmates are 12 times more likely to die during their first two weeks home.

The UNC study suggests this is even more true for inmates who spent time in solitary. It also reveals a racial component to the effects of solitary confinement. Bertram says, “Black people are more likely than white people to be put into solitary confinement. We know that, just as racism plays out in our police departments, it also plays out in prisons and jails.”

Prison Policy Initiative weighs in on solitary confinement.
Image courtesy of Vanessa Werder on Unsplash.

People of color are already more likely to die upon release. The UNC study shows that solitary confinement amplifies this disparity even more. There is a link between the amount of time spent in solitary and rates of death too. Death rates go up even more as time spent in solitary increases.

Prison Policy Initiative Says There Are Alternatives

Bertram and Fenster say the best thing to do is to end the use of solitary confinement. They say this change should include other forms of solitary, like segregated housing units (Fenster adds that these forms actually bring the same harms when “[inmates] have intense isolation”). Bertram says, “The evidence is clear we need to get rid of solitary, it’s inhumane and it’s dangerous from a public health perspective.”

Despite what they say is a wealth of evidence solitary does damage inmates, many prisons are actually increasing its use. Solitary confinement has proven a popular method to deal with COVID-19, since it’s one way to ensure inmates are at least six feet apart. Bertram says this is backwards, and that “they need to be releasing people as a way to slow down the pandemic.” The problem is, this solution will take both time and convincing.

Bertram notes how unpopular this solution is. She sees it as a long-term goal rather than an immediate action. In the meantime, she believes we also need to pay attention to the risks posed to newly released inmates that spent time in solitary. The department of corrections and parole officers are where this would start.

Many advocates agree time spent in solitary should indicate a clear risk factor to address upon a prisoner’s release.  This would allow reentry programs to link individuals with services after release.  Increased access to substance abuse programs would help stop opioid overdoses. Trauma-informed treatment and mental health services could help prevent homicides and suicides.

Prison Policy Initiative North Carolina Solitary
Image Courtesy of Emiliano Bar at Unsplash.

When Will It End?

The question is if the state will follow any of these proposed alternatives. The up hill battle faced by advocates for incarcerated people’s health face is clear. There have been problems getting the state to respond to even short term prison problems like the shortage of masks for prisoners during COVID-19. It took three months for the state to start a testing program after the pandemic started. It took another six weeks to test inmates in state prisons. These timelines suggest solving the issue of solitary confinement and its harmful impact will take much longer than hoped.

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