Study: Nearly 2K inmates nationwide held in solitary for at least 6 years
More than 4,000 offenders with mental illness are being held in solitary, despite research suggesting isolation contributes to mental health conditions
By Jessica Schladebeck
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — The amount of time prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement in facilities across the United States remains a pressing problem — with nearly 2,000 offenders nationwide being held in segregation for more than six years.
A study co-authored by the State Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center for Public Interest Center Law at Yale University estimated a total of 61,000 prisoners in restrictive housing across the country, about 2% of which have been in solitary for at least six years.
According to the report, which was released Wednesday, not all prisons — including those in New York — tracked how long people are held in restrictive housing until recently.
In New York, seven inmates have been in segregation for at least six years while nearly a third of Texas prisoners remain in solitary for six-plus years, ultimately leading the country in long-term isolation.
The latest numbers regarding the amount of time in solitary mark an improvement in 14 districts, remained the same in another 14 and increased in three jurisdictions since the 2015-2016 survey.
Overall, the total number of solitary confinement prisoners has decreased in light of research and policy pertaining to the matter. The segregation population has dropped from 100,000 in 2014 to about 61,000 last year. Researchers cited several success stories including Colorado — which became the first state to make it illegal to hold prisoners in isolation for more than 15 days.
But progress varies from state to state, while many have noted improvements, 11 states actually saw their number of prisoners in solitary increase.
The study also highlights the amount of offenders with mental illness being subjected to restrictive housing as a “special concern.”
More than 4,000 offenders with a serious mental illness are being held in solitary, despite research suggesting isolation can worsen and trigger symptoms of many mental health conditions. Of the jurisdictions that provided a response to the survey, 13 of them revealed about 10% of male prisoners with a mental illness were being held in isolation.
“Even as debate exists as to what level of distress should create buffers to placement in restrictive housing, a consensus has emerged that identified individuals of having serious mental illness should not be placed into restrictive housing,” according to the study.
It’s worth noting what classifies as a “serious mental illness” varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — in one prison it's defined as a “condition that current and medical science affirms is caused by a biological disorder of the brain that substantially limits the life activities of the person” while another lists known conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder.
Missouri had the the highest number of inmates — 703 — with mental disorders in solitary confinement, while New Mexico had the highest proportion, with more than half of its mentally ill offenders segregated.
Of New York’s 2,420 male prisoners with a mental disorder, almost 50 of them are in solitary confinement, according to the study. The number puts the New York prison system significantly below the median figure of 4,153 male prisoners — or an average of about 8% — with mental disordesr being held in restrictive housing.
The report comes just a day after Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a blistering take-down of the on-going practice. In a statement declining to hear a case, Sotomayor emphasized a “punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual.”
“I write to note however, that what is clear all the same is deprive a prisoner of any outdoor exercise for an extended period of time in the absence of an especially strong basis for doing so is deeply troubling — and has been recognized as such for many years,” she said.