Isolation: Where Mentally Ill Prisoners Go To Die

Mental illness is a serious problem in the jails and prisons of the United States. Between 1960 and 1980, policy shifts led to the elimination of virtually all long-term inpatient psychiatric beds, and the construction of hundreds of prisons and jails. Many of those newly built jail and prison cells have become occupied by mentally ill individuals.

But jails and prisons were not built with the mentally ill in mind. Correctional employees have traditionally received no training in dealing with mentally ill inmates. Correctional health care providers are ill equipped to care for and manage the seriously mentally ill inmate. And as a rule, correctional settings such as jails and prisons tend to exacerbate mental illness.

Mental illness can present a significant challenge to prison administrators. With the usage of isolation now essentially normalized across the nation, challenging inmates are often managed through maximum control units. Maximum control units are, of course, places of complete isolation. The mentally ill often find themselves in solitary confinement for no reason other than their illness, or the manifestation thereof.

Up to 50 percent of all prisoners in isolation are seriously mentally ill. This is double the rate of serious mental illness among prisoners in general population, and more than 10 times the rate of serious mental illness among the United States population.

Thus, it should surprise no one that suicide rates in isolation are much higher than in the prison general population. In 2004, for instance, an expert on the psychological effects of solitary confinement testified in federal court that 73 percent of all suicides in California prisons were in the isolation units. As of August 2014, 79 percent of all California prison suicides took place in isolation. And it is estimated that 50 percent of all prisoner suicides in the United States took place in isolation, despite isolation units holding only 10 percent of the country's prison population.

The high rates of mental illness and suicide in isolation units are not solely a result of management decisions to house mentally ill inmates in isolation, however. Prisoners become mentally ill as a result of placement in solitary confinement. This is not news; the United States Supreme Court -- in 1890 -- described solitary confinement as a practice leading to insanity and suicide. And Charles Dickens and Alex de Tocqueville both roundly denounced solitary confinement as torture over a century ago.

Placing the mentally ill in isolation is a form of torture, and the fact that it goes on is a blight on this country. The statistics don't lie: a mentally ill prisoner locked in isolation is at an unacceptably high risk of suicide. For the average American, this issue is a case of "out of sight, out of mind." It's time people opened their eyes to what's really going on.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com