Study exposes long-term impact of ‘social deprivation’
Solitary confinement has serious long-term adverse effects on incarcerated people, their families, and corrections staff, according to a report published by the Vera Institute of Justice. The practice also has a significant fiscal cost, and is applied disproportionately to people of color and those with mental illnesses.
Solitary confinement does not make institutions or communities any safer, said the April 2021 report. For all of these reasons its use is widely opposed by “advocacy and human rights groups, policymakers, health care professionals, faith-based organizations, and leaders in the field of corrections.” The report said that research has provided “compelling reasons for corrections agencies to swiftly and immediately end — its use.” It was written by Kayla James and Elena Vanko and titled “The Impacts of Solitary Confinement.“
Solitary confinement was originally intended as a response to violent and dangerous behavior, the report states. But the practice has evolved to include punishment for minor and nonviolent rule violations as well as to segregate vulnerable populations. Its use has spread beyond jails and prisons to civil detainees in immigrant detention centers.
Psychological, neurological and physiological damages can result from the sensory deprivation and idleness caused by social and physical isolation. The effects can persist long after the confinement has ended, may worsen with the length of confinement, and can be long-lasting even after short periods of isolation, the authors noted.
Psychological effects can include anxiety, anger, depression, impulse control issues, paranoia, obsessive thoughts, hypersensitivity, loss of identity, insomnia, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
These effects tend to be aggravated by preexisting mental illness, and those with such conditions often end up in solitary confinement, the report notes. Symptoms of their illness can be misconstrued as misbehavior. The result is disciplinary action which, ironically, often takes the form of more time in solitary.
Research on neurological effects indicates that “social deprivation experienced in solitary confinement can ‘fundamentally alter the structure of the human brain in profound and permanent ways,’” said the report. These effects are especially import- ant for young adults in the formative stages of mental and physical development.
Physiological impacts of solitary can include hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, deterioration of eyesight, shaking and weakness.
Solitary confinement can also affect length of incarceration. Access to rehabilitative programs are restricted or eliminated during periods of isolation, hampering preparation for future release. And parole boards may misconstrue the purpose and implications of time spent in solitary. The result may be denial of parole.
The families of those in isolation, especially children, also suffer negative impacts. Research shows that the im- pacts “can be mitigated if children with strong parental bonds are permitted to maintain and develop their family relationships,” said the report. But access to loved ones via telephone or personal visits is severely restricted during periods of solitary confinement. And the loss or reduction of contact impairs successful reintegration of families upon release of the incarcerated person.
Corrections staff working in isolation units suffer from high stress levels that can affect their health and wellbeing. Often the conditions they work in include “frequent loud shouting and banging … and instances of interpersonal and self-inflicted violence,” the report noted. The phrase “corrections fatigue” has been coined to describe the resulting effect.
Solitary confinement is costly. Isolation units are staff-intensive and therefore two to three times as expen- sive to operate. The negative effects on physical and mental health of both the incarcerated and their overseers can contribute to greater future costs for health care. And increased rates of recidivism correlated to solitary confinement can increase future costs of law.
Although solitary confinement is mostly used in jails and prisons, its use and detrimental effects also extend to immigration detention. The report said that “Despite the ‘civil’ nature of immigration detention, the use of solitary confinement … in detention facilities is strikingly similar to how solitary is used in U.S. corrections facilities.”
A large portion of those so confined in immigration detention centers are people with mental illness. The report pointed out that the practice is “grossly overused” for detained immigrants.
The report’s authors argue that solitary confinement does not achieve its intended outcome of promoting institutional safety. Most studies have shown that it does not decrease the incidence of violence or misconduct in jails or prisons, and may actually increase criminal recidivism.
The report concludes that the use of solitary confinement should be replaced by “humane and effective strategies to achieve safe facilities for incarcerated people and staff.”