By Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P.
(Many thanks to Willow Katz and Dolores Canales for support and editing)
Prisoners consigned to solitary confinement or Security Housing Unit (SHU) are derided as “the worst of the worst.” But when I enter SHUs around the country in preparation for expert testimony in class action litigation, I find very ordinary people, with some exceptions. There are very bright people, and there are not so bright people, just as in the community. There are mean and ornery people and there are peaceful and very caring people, just as in the community (and in prison the peaceful and caring are much more numerous).
The exceptions include the fact that: 1. A disproportionate number of prisoners in solitary suffer from serious mental illness (SMI) — either they were diagnosed before entering solitary or they developed emotional problems on account of the harsh conditions — and that’s why, when I started touring supermax solitary confinement units in the ’80s and ’90s, I found that 50% of SHU-dwellers suffered from SMI; 2. A disproportionate number are people of color — the racism that permeates the criminal “justice” system does not stop at the prison walls; and 3. ...