By Matt Clarke
In June 2013, the New York City (NYC) Department of Corrections announced that it would cease using solitary confinement as a punishment for mentally ill prisoners. The reasoning underlying the move was not given much of an explanation at the time. However, the long-delayed release of a March 2012 memo from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) referenced data which shows that a stint in solitary confinement dramatically increased the length of time a mentally ill prisoner stayed in jail. Unexpectedly, the same data showed that solitary confinement visits also dramatically increased the length of time prisoners without mental health issues remained in jail.
The data is from a study of mentally ill prisoners at Rikers Island conducted by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments in 2008, which involved 40,000 prisoners. The stated purpose of the study was to "improve public safety and treatment outcomes and reduce jail costs."
About 38% of the NYC jail population has mental health issues. They typically spend twice as long in jail as persons without mental illness who are charged with similar crimes.
Recently, there has been increased concern that solitary confinement adversely effects the mentally ill and might even cause mental illness. The issue is especially important to NYC, which expanded the number of punitive segregation units in its jails by 44% under the recent tenure of Corrections Commissioner Dora Schriro and currently holds a larger percentage of its prisoners in solitary confinement than any other U.S. jail system.
"Placing an inmate in solitary often leads to a vicious cycle in which the inmate becomes more and more out of control, thus incurring either more time in solitary and/or additional criminal charges against him," according Harvard psychologist Dr. Stuart Grassian, who for decades has studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement.
The DHMH data showed that a prisoner without a mental health indicator spent an average of 60 days jail, but this increased to 196 days if the prisoner spent time in punitive housing. The average jail stay for a prisoner with a mental health indicator was 112 days, but this went up to 260 days if the prisoner was ever confined in punitive housing. Thus, a stint in solitary confinement more than doubled the average jail stay for prisoners with mental health issues and more than tripled it for other prisoners. This means that building more solitary confinement cells and increasing the use of punitive segregation may end up being much more expensive than the construction costs alone might indicate.
Sources: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene data, www.thenewyorkworld.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login