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Study Shows Solitary Confinement Poses Mortality Risk After Release

Now, a study published February 1, 2020 in The Lancet public health journal by Cornell professor Christopher Wildeman and Lars Andersen of Denmark’s ROCKWOOL Foundation has documented a link between being placed in solitary confinement and a significant increase in prisoner death rates within five years of release.

The authors set out to discover if they could find a link between solitary confinement among Danish prisoners and post-release mortality. For their study, they gathered data from Danish government sources on all 13,776 people who had been incarcerated for seven days or longer in the period stretching from 2006-2011.

They sorted these individuals into two groups — those who had spent at least 72 hours in solitary confinement during their incarceration and those who had not. The study tracked mortality rates among both groups for five years after release. Analysis showed that even after accounting for other variables such as age, sex, type of offense, and length of sentence, there was a measurable and statistically significant correlation between solitary confinement and increased mortality rates after release.

The study also showed two troubling trends. The first was a remarkably higher mortality rate among people who had been incarcerated versus the general population of Denmark. Fully 3% of the former prisoners in the study died within the five-year period analyzed, as opposed to three-tenths of a percent of the overall population after adjusting for age and gender.

That people who are released from prison are 10 times likelier to die than those who had not been incarcerated is alarming enough, but the study also found that prisoners who had been placed in solitary confinement, even for as little as 72 hours, suffered from an even higher mortality rate. While 2.8% of those who had not been placed in solitary confinement had died within five years, 4.5% of those who had been in solitary died during the period studied.

Many of these deaths were attributed to non-natural causes, including suicide, homicide, and overdose. Considering that nearly two-thirds of the cohort of prisoners in the study who had been in solitary confinement had spent less than a week there, the fact that this significantly elevated mortality rates is noteworthy.

The connection between solitary confinement and mortality was not invisible before the study. As far back as the 1840s, colonial officials in Tasmania had noted elevated mortality rates among transported male convicts kept in solitary as opposed to the rest of those transported to the colony. More recently, a 2010 North Carolina study found a high mortality rate among released prisoners who had been in solitary confinement, especially from homicide, suicide, and opioid overdose. What these studies suggested, however, was shown conclusively in the Danish study.

Wildeman believes that the data he uncovered is important because it reveals that even short stays in solitary could be tied to higher mortality rates, and most short stays could be avoided. With more than 10 million people incarcerated worldwide and long stays in solitary confinement common in many nations, the effects of solitary confinement should be made apparent to policymakers so solitary confinement is eliminated as a “management” tool.