What’s wrong with solitary confinement?

Guest Commentary in the Denver Post by Mark W. Diamond, MD, former Medical Director of Oregon State Hospital, May 20, 2011

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you’ve been alone for years and years, lying on a cold, concrete slab, in a stark windowless room, with virtually no human to communicate with – except yourself.

Imagine being locked behind a solid steel door, in a space, tighter than most bathrooms, for 23 of every 24 hours. In hour 24, you go into a “vented dog run;” that’s your only exercise. Imagine how the most resilient individual might react to this existence; to permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures and forced insomnia. Imagine, too, the most vulnerable: inmates with serious mental illness.

There’s often little sympathy for the incarcerated and even less for those who find themselves in long-term solitary confinement. We often think they must have done something heinous to not only be in prison, but in the bleakest part of a prison: solitary confinement, isolation, permanent lockdown, the hole.

As the former Chief of Psychiatry for the Colorado Department of Corrections, with responsibility for directing the psychiatric care of inmates around the state, I can tell you that solitary confinement doesn’t play out like we imagine it from popular media. It doesn’t always house only “the worst of the worst.” In my experience, the smallest infraction can end with a solitary placement. It’s not a 30-day experience like that often shown on television; inmates typically serve two, three, or more years in solitary. There are no victories; no Shawshank Redemption. Solitary confinement is not redemptive. For many, it’s cruel and unusual punishment. And warehousing prisoners who are mentally ill in solitary confinement, well, that’s just a losing proposition.

It’s ineffective, it’s inhumane, and its costs are higher than most Coloradans know.

In this legislative session, a bill was passed that made some limited changes to the landscape of solitary confinement. Senate Bill 176 establishes a new earned time provision and changes the definition of a security threat group. But what we need is change that affects those prisoners with serious mental illness; changes that begin right at the cell front door that separates a prisoner who is mentally ill from both sanity and humanity.

The time for these changes is now.

As a medical professional with intimate knowledge of the state’s network of prisons and prisoners, I know that solitary confinement of prisoners who are mentally ill is a problem that should command the state’s immediate attention – and action.

Nearly 1,500 of Colorado’s 23,000 inmates are currently housed in what is officially called “administrative segregation.” About 37 percent of those inmates have been diagnosed as mentally ill or developmentally disabled (a far higher percentage than found in the general population). For them, “ad seg” is hell. Their mental health conditions deteriorate. They act out in ways that speak to the sensory deprivation of being denied human contact. They imagine suicide — and homicide. They get no better; they get worse.

There is not enough prison staff to meet the needs of all the inmates with mental illness in solitary. Perhaps that is because there are just too many inmates with mental illness.

Overtaxed staff who fail to communicate with them about the “little things” all too often find problems escalating – and then wonder why. Staff finds themselves facing violence when those cell doors finally open.

The prison sentence is enough; it’s short-sighted to make things worse by placing the mentally ill in solitary confinement. It hurts prison staff, it hurts prisoners and it hurts all who live in the state of Colorado.

Instead of solitary confinement, these prisoners need mental health care. They need a step-down process so that they are not released directly from solitary to the streets. We all need policy that reduces recidivism and leads to success on the “outside.” Though these changes did not happen in this legislative session, they MUST happen.

It’s been proven that the extended solitary confinement of mentally ill prisoners is creating a much bigger problem for Colorado than the state ever imagined.

You must take action now to mitigate it.

Dr. Mark W. Diamond, who operates a private forensic psychiatry practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon, was the Colorado Department of Corrections Chief of Psychiatry from 1995-2004.