Until recently, supporters of long-term solitary confinement had little academic research to back up what their experience told them: that placing inmates in isolation for long periods — is an indispensable tool in running a prison system.
Now, a controversial study based on research among Colorado prisoners is filling the gap — at least as far as advocates of solitary confinement are concerned.
The results, published in 2010 by the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, are based on psychological tests administered to about 250 Colorado prisoners — some mentally ill — in both solitary and in the prison system's general population. The average length of a stay in solitary in Colorado is two years, but the study doesn't say how long each study participant in solitary had spent there. The tests included prisoners' self-assessments of their own psychological condition.
A report on the study, co-written by Maureen L. O'Keefe, research director for the Colorado Department of Corrections, concluded that “there was initial improvement in psychological well-being across all study groups.” What's more, it said “elevations in psychological and cognitive functioning that were evident at the start of the study remained present at the end of the study.”
The report noted that researchers had not expected these results and that the study's conclusions contradicted “the bulk of literature” indicating that solitary confinement “is extremely detrimental to inmates with and without mental illness.”
“People who rail against isolated confinement were very disappointed in the outcome of the report,” says Eugene Atherton, a Pueblo, Colo.-based prison management consultant and former Colorado warden. “The research showed the opposite of what they had hoped would be proved.” Atherton, now working for the State Department to advise the Afghan government on development of a prison system, spoke from Kabul.
Advocates of solitary confinement have used the study to support their view that isolating prisoners for long periods — usually known in the field as “administrative segregation” or “ad seg” — is a legitimate form of punishment and necessary for maintaining control of inmate populations.
Last June, Charles E. Samuels Jr., director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Subcommittee that the study found that “no negative effect on individuals in restrictive housing has occurred.”
But opponents of solitary confinement argue that the study is flawed and should not be used to shape prison policy.
O'Keefe and study adviser Jeffrey L. Metzner, a University of Colorado psychiatry professor and longtime expert on mental health in prison, acknowledged that the report shouldn't be taken as conclusive evidence that applies to all long-term solitary nationwide. “This study may not generalize to other prison systems, especially those that have conditions of confinement more restrictive and/or harsher than CSP [Colorado State Penitentiary],” they wrote last year in a professional journal, Correctional Mental Health Report.
Writing separately, Metzner said, “Such results should not be interpreted to indicate that there is little harm associated with housing inmates with mental illness on a long-term basis in” solitary confinement. Metzner served as an adviser on the study. Others included Jamie Fellner, a senior adviser to the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group that is critical of long-term solitary confinement.
Despite the caveats, the report has generated a furious response from corrections experts, who have concluded that isolation damages prisoners who were either mentally ill to start with or mentally healthy when their isolation began.
Stuart Grassian and Terry Kupers, psychiatrists with long professional track records in correctional mental health, argued, for example, that relying on prisoners to assess their own psychological conditions constitutes a fundamental flaw of the study. The testing materials the researchers used weren't designed specifically for prison inmates, Grassian and Kupers wrote. Prisoners in the study sample were told that the purpose was to research adjustment to prison life.
“Anyone with a background in corrections knows that is not the kind of information an inmate would likely expose,” Grassian and Kupers wrote. “It could harm him, even surreptitiously, for example at a parole hearing or in hearings to determine whether he could progress to higher levels in [administrative segregation].”
Grassian, a retired Harvard Medical School professor, and Kupers, a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, Calif., a postgraduate clinical psychology school, also wrote that the study failed to evaluate test results in light of prison mental-health records. These would have provided data, they wrote, against which to assess the test results.
The study's critics may have feared that it would be used to justify maintaining or even expanding the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. But that has not been the result, at least in Colorado. After the report was issued, the legislature last year ordered the state corrections department to report annually on progress in removing mentally ill or developmentally disabled prisoners from solitary confinement. The bill imposing the requirement was prompted by an increase in the number of mentally ill prisoners placed in solitary.
But changes in the prison system went deeper. Administrators have been sending fewer prisoners of any kind to solitary confinement. Along with a general decrease in the prison population, partly resulting from lowered penalties for some drug crimes, the decline in the solitary population led this year to closure of the brand-new Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. It had been used mainly for strict solitary confinement of the long-term type, with virtually round-the-clock isolation and limited human contact.
The $162 million prison, opened in 2010 with room for 948 administrative-segregation prisoners, has housed only 316 inmates since it opened.
Atherton acknowledges the report hasn't settled the issue. “On goes this battle,” he says, “with those who know little or nothing about correctional institutions and criminal behavior who are applying their own suburban standards to prisons.”
— Peter Katel