Solitary Confinement: Re-assessing, Re-evaluating, Re-thinking

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 27, 2012 @ 4:27 PM — Comments (1)

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on solitary confinement.

Dr. Craig Haney, the nation’s leading expert on inmate mental health, and a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, recently testified before a U. S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners. Inmates in long-term confinement, according to Haney, suffer mental breakdowns from the lack of human contact that can lead to a multitude of mental, physical and emotional conditions, including psychosis, mutilations and suicide. Solitary confinement for most inmates, Haney testified, “precipitates a descent into madness” and can cause “profound, psychological damage.”

The increase in solitary confinement in the United States (since the late 1970s), according to statistics provided by Haney, is the result of the “confluence of three unfortunate trends”: mass imprisonment, the shift in responsibility for housing the mentally ill to the nation’s prison systems, and the abandonment of the notion of rehabilitation. Haney, who is also chair of UCSC’s Legal Studies program, estimated that 80,000 of the nation’s 2.3 million inmates in prisons and jails are in long-term solitary confinement. A great number of inmates have spent the majority of their prison sentences in solitary confinement, a legal and administrative practice that separates designated inmates from the prison’s general population.

Professor Haney was invited to testify by Subcommittee chairman Senator Richard “Dick” Durbin, D-Ill, at the first-ever hearing on the constitutional, fiscal, and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. Since 1971, Haney has conducted groundbreaking research into the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners. His work has been cited in numerous scholarly journals and publications. Since 1971, he has been a leading proponent of mental health issues affecting prison inmates.  As a graduate student, he was one of the principal investigators in an academic undertaking that became known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE).” He and fellow researchers placed a group of psychologically healthy college students in a prison-like environment, randomly assigning half to the position of prison guards; the other participants were designated as prisoners.

The researchers in the SPE carefully monitored participants’ behavior during the designated period, eventually ending the experiment, however, upon their observation that the otherwise “psychologically healthy volunteers in the simulated prison [setting] rapidly deteriorated into mistreatment and emotional breakdowns.” Thus began Haney’s prolific research into the effects of solitary confinement upon prisoners who have been incarcerated for extended periods of time. Since the SPE, Haney’s work has extended into the effects of capital punishment as well. In 2011, his research was cited numerous times in the majority opinion when the United States Supreme Court upheld a ruling ordering California to release 46,000 prisoners in an effort to relieve the state’s overcrowded prisons.

While a great portion of Haney’s testimony before the Subcommittee centered upon the effects of solitary confinement, he also addressed the state of  prisons’ mental health workers, individuals who are assigned the task of treating inmates who have mental health issues.  Oftentimes the workers are (themselves) stressed and too overburdened to render effective care with respect to noticeable improvements in inmates’ mental health issues. Such inadequate  healthcare not only harms prisoners, Haney testified, it also “endangers the public once those prisoners are released” from prison. Without adequate mental healthcare as well as available, external counseling, prisoners, once released from the confines of a structured environment, are oftentimes present and “untreated” in the public domain.

Many times, according to statistics  provided during the hearing, non-treated inmates (or inadequately treated inmates) commit crimes which cause their return to the familiar, institutional environment of incarceration. A vicious cycle of re-institutionalization becomes, in many cases, the norm. An overburdened healthcare system speaks not only to an inadequate system of governance–as it relates to prison reformation–it also articulates a much broader statement in terms of the responsibilities of government in being fiscally accountable to those who work in conditions as presented in California’s (and other states’) prison facilities.

Haney’s testimony before the Subcommittee concluded on multiple points of note. According to Haney, we put “far too many people in prison, we pay far too little attention to what happens to them while they’re there, we keep them there for far too long, then we disregard what happens to them when they try to make the difficult transition to come out into the free world.” In April 2012,the National Academy of Sciences appointed Haney to a panel to study the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration in the United States.

Others testifying on issues related to solitary confinement included the Honorable Charles Samuels, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Christopher Epps, Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections; and former inmate Anthony Graves, who was released from Texas death row in 2010, after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Ten of the 18 years Graves spent on death row were in solitary confinement. He is the founder of “Anthony Believes,” an organization dedicated to the health and well-being of individuals consigned to death row and solitary confinement. His front-line advocacy has garnered national attention on issues related to solitary confinement and prison reformation.

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Comments and Pings on “Solitary Confinement: Re-assessing, Re-evaluating, Re-thinking”

  1. Pingback from Same Narrative, Different Players | Innocence Project of Florida.

    […] This is Part 3 of 3-part commentary on Solitary Confinement. See Part I here and Part II […]

     March 25, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

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