As almost 1,000 California inmates enter week three of a hunger strike over years-long solitary confinement, a new American Civil Liberties Union report finds that more than half of Colorado’s mentally ill inmates are held in solitary confinement, some for more than four years.
While Colorado has lowered the overall number of prisoners in solitary confinement in response to criticism, an increasing proportion of those held in solitary suffer from mental illness. Prisoners with moderate to severe psychiatric needs now constitute the majority of prisoners in solitary confinement, the report finds. And with prisons increasingly warehousing mentally ill individuals, there is potential for the problem to get worse. Confinement typically involves isolation in a single, sometimes windowless cell with a steel door for as much as 23 hours a day. Few, if any phone calls, are allowed, and inmates are sometimes allowed exercise in another small concrete room with a single pull-up bar.
Prolonged solitary confinement — more than a few weeks — has been deemed torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, and a “living death” as applied to anybody. But courts, psychiatrists, and social science studies have repeatedly found that solitary confinement imposes particular harms on the mentally ill, whose mental conditions predictably deteriorate, oftentimes leading to states of extreme psychosis and suicidal tendencies. The ACLU report finds that mentally ill inmates are particularly likely to end up in solitary confinement, because they are less able to conform to rules. Once they enter confinement, they must make their way through a strict four-level system they are often ill-suited to navigate, and “appear to have no road out of severely restrictive confinement,” the ACLU report concludes.
A case study of one mentally ill inmate tracked his deterioration from a young teen described as funny, warm, and reasonably articulate. After years in solitary confinement, he became somber and depressed, heard voices in his head telling him to harm himself, attempted suicide after psychotic breaks, and smeared excrement on his food tray because he thought the guards were putting rat poison in his food. All of these behaviors made it even less likely this man would be released from confinement, even though it was likely confinement itself that brought these behaviors on.
This practice is not without consequence. Some 97 percent of Colorado prisoners will one day be released to the community, according to the ACLU. And prisoners released directly from solitary confinement harbor anger, have greater rates of recidivism, and are less likely to readjust to life outside of prison. Solitary confinement also costs twice as much as housing inmates with the general population.
The tragic killing of Colorado corrections head Tom Clements tells an ironic story about Colorado confinement. Clements had long been an advocate for reduced solitary confinement, and oversaw the closure of a state facility that contained only solitary confinement units. He had warned, “My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.” But the former inmate who killed him, Evan Ebel, had been released from prison straight from solitary confinement. Before his release, his family had testified before the state legislature about changes in Ebel’s demeanor after years in confinement. “What I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious,” his father told lawmakers in 2011. “So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-a-half before we can actually talk.”