Will Lawmakers End Solitary Confinement?

Will Lawmakers End Solitary Confinement?

Could it finally be time to end solitary confinement? Over 2 million individuals and approximately 1 million children have their lives impacted from the criminal justice system. Studies show that solitary confinement has a lasting negative effect. New brain science findings provide support for advocates, such as President Barack Obama, to push for a ban on solitary confinement for young offenders. See how policy is shaping up and how it may impact those in the healthcare field.

What Happens in and out of Solitary Confinement?

Kalief Browder was 16 when sent to Rikers Island in 2010. His court date was postponed 30 times and he spent a total of 1,110 days behind bars and 800 days in solitary confinement. Kalief never stood trial, charges related to stealing a backpack were dismissed, but Kalief was unalterably changed. He later struggled with mental illness and killed himself in 2015. He described the time spent behind bars as “hell on earth.”

A Frontline investigation highlighted conditions on inmates in solitary. Individuals spent 23 hours every day in a cell of about 80 square feet, with a bed, sink and toilet. Food is received through a door slot and inmates are given the privilege of an hour of exercise in a case. That is an overview of the physical space and activities allotted to an individual in solitary confinement.

Self-mutilation and suicide are startlingly high for those in such restricted conditions. A study from the California’s prison system found that over the period of 1999 to 2004, nearly half of prison suicides occurred with inmates placed in solitary confinement. A 1995 study had an even higher suicide rate of 63 percent or such inmates. A disturbing study on rhesus monkey in the 1950s highlighted that 12 months of isolation was seen to have “almost obliterated the animals socially.”

Long-term solitary confinement can produce lasting damage on an individual. Significant research shows that long-term isolation or restrictive housing in prison on adults can produce:

  • Harmful psychological effects;
  • Emotional damage; and
  • An inability to integrate with other people after release.

For children and adolescents with developing brains, effects can be more acute, as the brain is highly sensitive to both positive and negative environments.

Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard Medical School faculty member and board-certified psychiatrist, interviewed hundreds of prisoners that spent time in solitary. One such study found that about one-third were “actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal.” His conclusion was that solitary confinement led to a specific psychiatric syndrome with symptoms including:

  • Hallucinations
  • Overt paranoia
  • Panic attacks
  • Diminished impulse control
  • Difficulty with thinking, memory and concentration
  • Hypersensitivity to external stimuli
  • Possible development of “crippling” obsessions

How can we hope to integrate such individuals back into society and remove the mark that solitary confinement can often leave on them? Individuals, such as case managers, psychologists and behavior analysts have their work cut out for themselves. For children with developing brains, they may have a full lifetime of damage to contend with after such confinement and may never be able to integrate back into society.

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How is the Law Changing?

The United Nations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry all have either suggested or supported a prohibition of solitary confinement. They may have gained new advocates into their fold.

President Barack Obama and lawmakers are taking actions to end solitary confinement for young offenders within the justice system. The decision was soon made after the release of Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing from the Department of Justice. This report called for an “end” to “the practice of placing juveniles in restrictive housing.” The President and senators are using new findings in brain science to support their decision. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and the President are using research and data to work to restrict use of solitary confinement for juveniles. In addition, cohort members from 15 community-based organizations in Canada and the U.S. are looking at how brain science research could be integrated into the nonprofit sector. Susan Dreyfus, president and DEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, said:

“Both of these examples and others across the country tell us that the compelling brain science is finally starting to make its way into the formation of policies—and we need to keep it going.”

Currently, the President has placed a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. State correctional systems can choose to follow suit. Sen. Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, will introduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2015 in the Senate. If passed, the age of criminal responsibility will be raised and there will be a restriction placed on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. Once new laws are passed, changing policies have the potential to change how young offenders are treated in the justice system.

What Do These Changes Mean for Healthcare Professionals?

The growing body of research in brain science is driving support for a ban on solitary confinement to become policy. Well-informed policy may help health industry professionals, such as the individual case manager, behavior analyst and behavior technician, better serve the population in their care and provide improved outcomes for those leaving the justice system.

As for now, those healthcare professionals working in or with federal prison inmates may see policies changed soon and others may see the difference as young offenders leave federal institutions. As of yet, integration into nonprofit sectors is being researched and new policies are just emerging. However, bipartisan support could bring science-informed policy and practice changes to the justice system for our country’s youth.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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