outcome of that hearing. Therefore all study participants had been
in confinement for several days to a week, according to Klebe,
before they were ever evaluated by the researchers.
“I frankly don’t think you can draw any conclusions from
[the study],” Haney says. “There’s very little doubt in psychology
in general that enforced isolation is psychologically stressful and
for some people will be harmful.”
Meanwhile, in a growing number of states, mostly as a result
of litigation, it’s now illegal to place mentally ill individuals in
administrative segregation. Still, mentally impaired prisoners
are disproportionately represented in solitary confinement.
O’Keefe estimated that in 2005, the prevalence of mental illness
in administrative segregation in that state was greater than
35 percent, compared with a mental illness rate of less than
25 percent among the general prison population (Journal of
Offender Rehabilitation, 2008).
That pattern is troublesome, says Metzner. “It’s hard to
give a reasonable argument that you can provide adequate
treatment to someone with serious mental illness who’s
locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day,” he says. “Our
correctional system has become our mental health system for
too many people.”
Different individuals have different capacities for resilience,
and even among people without mental illness, it’s impossible
to know who might be seriously harmed by extended isolation.
Yet there are other good arguments for limiting segregation.
One is that most prisoners will eventually be released back
into society. “Some people have told me they’ve been locked
down so long they’re fearful of their own behavior if they’re
around human beings,” says Dvoskin. “That’s especially
counterproductive if you think this person is going to leave
In 2007, researchers at the University of Washington
reported that prisoners released directly from supermax
prisons into the community committed new crimes sooner
than prisoners who had been transferred from segregation into
the general prison population for several months before being
released (Crime and Delinquency, 2007).
Meanwhile, critics point out that supermax prisons are
expensive and there’s no good evidence that they’re safer than
the alternatives. Dvoskin says most psychologists who study
confinement agree that at the very least, solitary confinement is
used too much.
“We ought to be looking for any other way to keep prisons
safe, including new ways that maybe haven’t been invented yet,”
he says. n
Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.
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