Isolation Kills: The Perils of Solitary Confinement

As public health and social justice practitioners, it seems obvious that putting someone in a cage – with no human contact or sensory stimulation – is tantamount to torture. Despite the clear inhumanity of using solitary confinement, it is a common practice in jails and prisons throughout the United States.

In September 2013, Dr. James Gilligan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the NYU School of Medicine, co-published Report to the New York City Board of Correction. This comprehensive report broke down, point by point, the damage that solitary confinement inflicts on individuals and, sadly, how often this practice is utilized as a brutal form of control. People who live with mental illness represent a rapidly growing incarcerated population – and a population disproportionately vulnerable to injurious effects of solitary confinement. According to the report, divestment in mental hospitals created a social vacuum that pulled adequate mental healthcare access out from under those who need it most–people living with mental illness.   Herein marked a drastic shift of where mental health services were being offered. Compounded with the loss of essential mental hospitals, the criminalization of people living with mental illness engendered a situation where prison and jails have now become de facto mental health facilities.We have neglected to establish critical mental healthcare system that could divert people living with mental illness from incarceration and towards supportive and efficacious mental health networks.  This phenomenon has created a situation in which major incarceration systems, such as those in Los Angeles and NYC, house more mentally ill people than all of their mental hospitals combined.

Dr. Gilligan’s findings affirm that solitary confinement is a public health issue as well as a human rights issue because it rapidly degrades the state of one’s mental and physical health. Perhaps more disturbingly, its rampant use is an indication that our systems of care have, thus far, failed. In 2001, Dr. Brummett et al. published Characteristics of Socially Isolated Patients With Coronary Artery Disease Who Are at Elevated Risk for Mortality in the Psychosomatic Medicine Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. Their study examines the health impact of social isolation and solitary confinement on patients with coronary heart disease. Their results confirmed that mortality rates increase for patients who experienced social isolation. 

The widespread use solitary confinement is a stark reminder that the prison system is not and can never be a safe place for the people caged inside of it because their lives are in the hands of people who are hired to punish and/or torture them.  It is therefore evident that incarceration is by no means the “rehabilitative”. That solitary confinement is used as a common tool for inmate control is a clear indication of that. 

End Mass Incarceration week arrives at a critical time when the dead fruit of our incarceration system is being widely acknowledged as a grave human rights issue that must be tackled head on. Democracy Now! and PBS are covering stories that explore the expanse of social illnesses that grow out of mass incarceration and solitary confinement.

SCSJ’s End Mass Incarceration Week media series is an opportunity to further amplify the urgency of dismantling all systems that de- and sub-humanize people so that we can fully mitigate the damage that mass incarceration has caused.
Post by SCSJ intern Adé Oni