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NCCHC Adopts New Solitary Confinement Standards

by Derek Gilna

Based on recent studies showing the adverse mental health effects of solitary confinement, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) adopted new standards for solitary in a report and position statement released April 10, 2016.

The report defines solitary confinement as “the housing of an adult or juvenile with minimal to rare meaningful contact” with others for more than 15 consecutive days. It also describes the many euphemistic terms that U.S. prison officials use to refer to solitary, such as “administrative segregation” or ad seg, “intensive management,” “restrictive housing” and simply “the box.”

How widespread is the practice? The Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) has estimated that as many as 70,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement at any given time, though other estimates are higher. The organization pointed out that its members have a priority “to operate institutions that are safe for staff and inmates and to keep communities to which prisoners will return safe,” according to ASCA president Leann K. Bertch.

However, Solitary Watch, a non-profit group that tracks the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, noted that solitary is employed “not just for violent acts but also for non-violent offenses,” such as possession of contraband, “ignoring orders” or even the use of profanity.

And Prison Lives, another non-profit established “to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals,” reported that prison officials often use solitary confinement as a “first line” of punishment just “to discourage future infractions.” The result, the organization said, is that a more “contemptuous” prisoner is then returned to the general prison population and, ultimately, to outside communities.

The emerging picture indicates that indiscriminate overuse of solitary confinement may actually be contributing to the very threats its proponents claim it addresses.

Although the NCCHC report recognized the need for separating some prisoners from the general prison population, it noted that “persons with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the harms of solitary confinement.” They also form a large part of the population in solitary – as much as 38%, according to the ASCA – making the practice “a revolving-door epidemic for those with mental illness,” as Prison Lives put it.

The AVID Prison Project, which promotes rights for disabled prisoners, agreed. Its September 8, 2016 report, “Locked Up and Locked Down: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness,” concluded that mentally ill prisoners placed in solitary confinement typically end up with additional disciplinary violations, often against prison staff.

For those reasons, in 2012 the American Psychiatric Association began to oppose segregating seriously mentally ill prisoners for “prolonged” periods. It is also why a federal court concluded that same year that solitary confinement of the mentally ill is a violation of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. See: Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ind.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01317-TWP-MJD.

The World Health Organization has explained the adverse health effects of solitary confinement include “gastrointestinal and genitourinary problems ... insomnia, deterioration of eyesight, profound fatigue, heart palpitations, migraines, back and joint pains, weight loss, diarrhea, and aggravation of preexisting medical problems.” It also found prolonged placement in solitary can lead to “anxiety, depression, anger, diminished impulse control, ... paranoia, visual and auditory hallucination, posttraumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicide, and /or psychosis.”

According to the NCCHC position statement, juveniles and pregnant prisoners should be excluded from solitary confinement. However, despite the well-known negative effects of solitary, the NCCHC’s position and report are merely advisory, setting standards without any enforcement mechanism.

Although correctional agencies are quick to cite accreditation by one or more national organizations to polish their public image, the fact remains that NCCHC standards have little meaning if there is no penalty for non-compliance. The harsh reality is the standards will only be followed when society recognizes that it can no longer afford the cost of releasing prisoners who, as a result of correctional abuses – including solitary confinement – have exacerbated mental health problems that put them at greater risk for reoffending. 



Related legal case

Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction