Over the past few decades, the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities has come under increasing scrutiny. There have been claims of increased recidivism and worsened mental health resulting from its use. It has been alleged that the mentally ill in particular are at risk. While some support for these claims has been discovered, definitive evidence against solitary confinement is lacking.
The possible effects of solitary confinement on the mentally ill concerns many. The Washington Times article “Groups Seek Probe of Solitary Confinement in North Carolina” mentions that several civil rights groups have been seeking an investigation of the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The article notes common concerns that the mentally ill may be singled out for minor behavioral issues, with isolation replacing treatment. However, the groups were motivated by the recent death of a mentally ill inmate; it was determined that the inmate had been kept in solitary confinement, was not receiving treatment for his schizophrenia, and ultimately died of dehydration.
On the other hand, claims that solitary confinement of itself worsens mental illness may not be true. “Solitary Confinement May Not Be Psychologically Harmful,” published in Psychiatric News, detailed the results of a study comparing inmates in both solitary confinement and community housing. Inmates were no more likely to display deteriorating mental health in solitary confinement, even if they had an existing mental illness. Psychologists interpreted the results as indicating that most people can adjust to solitary confinement, possibly due to its structured nature.
Another issue is whether solitary confinement increases recidivism rates. The study “Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State,” by David Lovell, L. Clark Johnson, and Kevin C. Cain, explored this issue. They found that recidivism rates overall were higher for those who spent more than 12 weeks in solitary confinement, but pointed out that inmates likely to have high recidivism rates are more likely to be assigned to solitary confinement. Further statistical analysis found that solitary confinement predicted higher than average recidivism only when prisoners were released directly from solitary confinement. Inmates who spent time outside solitary confinement before their release did not show increased risk of recidivism. The researchers posited that disorientation from sudden reintroduction into society was a contributing factor in increased recidivism.
The use of solitary confinement in prisons is a matter that requires further study. Solitary confinement can have a negative effect on prisoners if they are not given opportunities to reintegrate with society. Mentally ill inmates in particular can be at risk, particularly if solitary confinement replaces treatment. Overall, while there is insufficient evidence that solitary confinement should be discontinued, its use should be more closely regulated.