Banning Solitary Confinement

According to a new survey conducted by Yale Law School researchers and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) in 2018, more than 4,000 prisoners living with serious mental illness in the United States are being held in solitary confinement. A 2014 study conducted in New York City found that prisoners placed in solitary confinement were seven times more likely to harm or kill themselves (1). The truth is, that placing prisoners in isolation for 22 hours each day, for 15 days or more, violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is meant to protect people from cruel and unusual punishment (2). Long-term isolation can both trigger mental health issues and exacerbate existing mental illness. And, yet, the number of prisoners being placed in solitary confinement increases daily. Let’s be smarter than this; there are better options, options that encourage proper mental health treatment and save money.

Now, you may be asking yourself, what’s the solution? Check out what Colorado is doing. In 2017, Colorado became the first state to limit the use of solitary confinement only for cases involving a serious disciplinary violation. Rather than long-term restrictive housing cells, the Colorado Department of Corrections developed de-escalation cells where incarcerated people could go for a “time out.” As a result of this initiative, assaults, forced cell entries, and the use of heavy restraints declined by 40 percent (3).

The development of de-escalation cells in Colorado demonstrates that there are credible alternatives to solitary confinement. For example, one alternative is the establishment of secure mental health residential units for people who are unable to function in general population because of the severity of their symptoms. Another alternative is the implementation of significant out-of-cell time for prisoners in solitary confinement. In Massachusetts, prisoners in solitary confinement were awarded at least 15 hours of structured out-of-cell programming per week, and 10 hours of unstructured out-of-cell time per week, thus, leading to significant reductions in the number of assaults on staff, assaults on other incarcerated people, days on suicide precautions, and days in an inpatient psychiatric setting (4). It’s important to remember that at least 95 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons will be released back to their communities at some point (5). Let’s give these individuals the proper mental health treatment so that they can live better lives as returning members of their communities.

It is clear that banning solitary confinement is both necessary and preferable for the mental health treatment of prisoners in the United States. With this in mind, here’s what NAMI NC is doing. With the support of Senator McKissick, NAMI NC was successful in its push for the inclusion of an initiative aimed at providing better mental health services for inmates, which included improving mental health screenings in intake procedures and reducing the use of solitary confinement, in the Senate Select Committee on Prison Safety’s 2019 Report to the NC General Assembly.

Lastly, don’t forget to call your representative in the NC Senate today and advocate for House Bill 781 with the changes that are being recommended as a Proposed Committee Substitute including: (1) the collection of better data on the use of restrictive housing on inmates with mental illness; (2) data on self-injurious assessments for inmates with mental illness and intellectual/development disability in isolation; (3) data on the progression of inmate mental health while housed in isolation; and (4) requiring that an out-of-cell mental health assessment is conducted within 15 days of an inmate’s entry into restrictive housing if that inmate has previously been diagnosed with a mental illness.

We can, and we should, do better.

  1. Inmates in solitary confinement 7 times more likely to harm themselves: Study. (2014, February 13). Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/inmates-in-solitary-confinement-7-times-more-likely-to-harm-themselves-study/
  2. More Than 4,000 Prisoners With Serious Mental Illness Are Held in Solitary Confinement, Study Finds. (2018, October 10). Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2018/10/10/mental-illness-solitary-confinement/
  3. Why I Ended the Horror of Long-Term Solitary in Colorado’s Prisons. (2018, December 5). Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/prisoners-rights/solitary-confinement/why-i-ended-horror-long-term-solitary-colorados-prisons
  4. Mental Health Units as Alternatives to Segregation. (2017, June 22). Retrieved from https://www.vera.org/blog/addressing-the-overuse-of-segregation-in-u-s-prisons-and-jails/mental-health-units-as-alternatives-to-segregation-it-can-be-done
  5. NRRC Facts & Trends. (2019). Retrieved from https://csgjusticecenter.org/nrrc/facts-and-trends/

Written By: Zeidy Jaen, NAMI NC Intern, with help from Deby Dihoff, NAMI NC Executive Director