Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness

Almost every prison in the country utilizes solitary confinement as a form of punishment or protection for the prisoners. It’s so easy for the general public to push aside this issue as being one that does not concern them unless they have friends or family in prison, but this issue is a societal problem that will likely only lead to more psychological problems with our prisoners, making rehabilitation much more difficult.


Solitary confinement restricts prisoners to a single cell, often with no windows and for 23 to 24 hours at a time, getting only a few hours each week to spend outside of the cell. Often referred to as the “prison within a prison,” it is a way to keep control of the inmates who are showing problematic behavior, dangerous attitudes, or as a form of punishment.  


On January 25, 2016, former President Barack Obama banned the use of solitary confinement in for juveniles in prisons, as more evidence was showing a correlation between mental anguish and solitary confinement among those that lived through it. Obama also limited the amount of time that one person could spend in solitary confinement to 60 days for a first offense, rather wthan the 365 days that was previously the limit.


While it’s hard to argue that, from time to time, some prisoners need to be removed from the main areas so they don’t harm themselves or others, this practice of throwing people into a concrete box as punishment needs to be rethought.


There are even super-maximum security prisons across the United States, called supermax, where the entire prison inmate population exists in a cell all day, every day.


It’s hard to say exactly how many people serve in solitary confinement, but estimates show around 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners. Of those prisoners, it’s even harder to deduce how many of them are struggling with a mental illness, be it a documented or undocumented illness. What is for sure is that for those with a mental illness, isolation can exacerbate the symptoms.


Studies have been done that suggest that human beings don’t do well in this sort of environment. In 1951, a group of men was chosen for a study in sensory deprivation, and they were placed in a room similar to a solitary cell for 6 weeks. Unfortunately, none of them made it past the first week and they all were exhibiting symptoms of psychosis.



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