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Solitary to the Streets: Studies Find Such Releases Result in Higher Recidivism Rates, Violent Behavior

by Lonnie Burton

Several studies have shown that prisoners released directly to the streets from solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend, commit new crimes sooner and exhibit violent behavior after release. The most recent study, “From Solitary to Society,” authored by Samarth Gupta and published in the Harvard Political Review, also found that prisoners held in long-term isolation are 33 percent more likely to commit suicide than those in general population.

Supporters of solitary confinement (a term that includes administrative segregation and other forms of restrictive housing) have long touted the purported benefits of harsh conditions in solitary – which often include spending 23 or 24 hours a day locked in a small cell with little human interaction. They argue that such conditions may serve as a way to deter prisoners from committing disciplinary offenses and future crimes.

Data from prison systems in a number of states tell a different story, though. Statistics indicate that prisoners who have spent time in segregation are more likely to reoffend than those who have served their sentences in general population. If you include prisoners who are released directly from solitary to the streets, the numbers – and the adverse effects – skyrocket.

A report prepared by the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that 49 percent of all prisoners released from Texas prisons in 2006 were rearrested within three years. The recidivism rate for those released directly from solitary in 2006 was 61 percent.

In Connecticut, the numbers were even starker. In 2001, 66 percent of prisoners released from general population committed new crimes within three years compared with a staggering 92 percent who went directly from solitary confinement to society. The Connecticut data, however, excluded prisoners who were not in solitary for disciplinary reasons or violent behavior.

Another study from Florida found that prisoners kept in solitary tend to commit new violent crimes at higher rates than those who weren’t. Florida State University professor Daniel Mears, who co-authored the study, matched 1,247 prisoners who spent more than 90 days in segregation with prisoners in general population of similar age, gender, race and criminal history. The results showed that those held in solitary committed a violent crime within three years after release at a rate just over 20 percent higher than general population prisoners.

Critics of the studies warned that they do not necessarily show a cause-and-effect relationship between time served in solitary confinement and the likelihood a prisoner will commit new crimes sooner than others. Maybe, they say, prisoners who are sent to segregation are already predisposed to breaking the rules and committing acts of violence, which skews the data.

Lawmakers in Connecticut who commissioned the study in that state wrote that the higher rate of recidivism among prisoners released directly to the streets from segregation was “not surprising,” given the reason they were in solitary confinement in the first place was for “management of [their] behavior.”

“We shouldn’t probably expect solitary to have some absolute effect,” said Prof. Mears. The “effects are going to depend greatly on how inmates are placed in there, how long they are there, what kind of services they got while they were in there.”

What is known for certain is that whatever the reason a prisoner is in segregation, such confinement can and often does have a debilitating effect on their mental health.

Dr. Craig Henry, a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of solitary, found that prisoners who spent ten or more days in segregation experienced symptoms such as uncontrolled anger, hallucinations, chronic depression and suicidal thoughts. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute, identified other symptoms such as anxiety, heightened suspicions, difficulty concentrating, and a tendency to resort to drugs and alcohol.

Another contributing factor to why prisoners released directly from segregation to the streets tend to commit crimes sooner and more often is that they don’t receive the same pre-release services available to those in general population.

As The Marshall Project stated in a June 2015 article, “These individuals go from complete isolation one day to complete freedom the next, yet they are in many ways the least equipped to make the transition home. Inside prison, those in solitary – many of whom suffer from mental illnesses that were either triggered or exacerbated in segregation – often cannot participate in the classes or services offered to other inmates approaching their release date.”

With that in mind, many state prison systems have introduced special step-down programs to assist prisoners in the transition from solitary to society. Maine, for example, has started moving prisoners from segregation to a “structured living unit,” where they are required to take classes such as anger management prior to their release.

Whatever the reason prisoners are placed in segregation, or for how long, it is nearly-universally accepted that going straight from isolation to the total freedom of the streets with no transitional assistance does little good for anyone. High-profile cases such as that of mentally ill prisoner Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Nebraska within two weeks after he was released directly from segregation, have spurred reform efforts. Jenkins, 30, was sentenced to death in May 2017 for the murders, plus up to 500 years for other crimes.

In another well-known case, Colorado prisoner Evan Ebel shot and killed the state’s prison director, Tom Clements, in March 2013 – two months after being released directly from solitary confinement. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.1].

According to David Lovell, a former professor at the University of Washington who studied the recidivism rates of 200 prisoners who served time in supermax facilities in Washington state in 2007, “being released directly from solitary confinement to the streets is a bad thing. It increases the likelihood of people who are already fairly likely to fail in the community.”

Despite the limited scope of many of the studies that have examined this issue, one thing is clear, Sullivan said. None demonstrate that prisoners have “better outcomes” after being held in segregation – which may explain why there is a national trend toward reducing the use of solitary confinement. [See: PLN, Dec. 2017, p.58].

Currently, it is unknown how many prisoners are released directly from solitary to the streets, as some states and the federal Bureau of Prisons do not track such data. 

Sources:;; “From Solitary to Society,” by Samarth Gupta, Harvard Political Review (Feb. 7, 2016) 


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