Solitary Confinement and the Criminal Justice Debate

Delaney Cummings

The devastating effects of solitary confinement in Canadian and U.S. prisons have recently been launched to the forefront of policy discussions regarding humane punishment and mental health. Solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, is a method that has been employed by prison systems for many years and generally involves confinement in a single cell for 23 hours per day.

While there are two persuasive sides to the debate surrounding solitary confinement, the damaging physical, psychological, and emotional effects have been clearly established. After so many years of maltreatment, why is the debate returning now?

Current events and media attention have spurred a reexamination of this kind of punishment. The continuing inquest into the death of Ashley Smith is just one of the main instigators of this movement. Ashley Smith, who was 18 when she died, spent four years in a segregation cell until 2007 when she choked herself to death with a strip of cloth, while guards looked on without intervening.

More recently, the debate resurfaced when inmates in a California prison held a two-month hunger strike to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement. While the California Department of Corrections has promised to “continue to implement substantive reforms” of the criminal justice system, inmates are still prepared to actively fight for their basic human rights.

Despite these controversial cases, statistics show that the number of Canadian prisoners placed in solitary confinement is actually rising. A recent CBC report and interview with Canada’s correctional investigator Howard Sapers highlight the increase in solitary confinement cases. According to Sapers, “Segregation units are being used to house a marginalized, compromised, vulnerable population.” This means that the inherent troubles with solitary confinement are being exacerbated by overpopulation in Canadian prisons.

The risk associated with solitary confinement is largely based upon the psychological effects of complete isolation. A Correctional Service Canada report outlining the psychological effects of 60 days in administrative segregation found that solitary confinement can be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” that is “individually destructive, psychologically crippling and socially alienating.” The report also noted that promoting certain views on solitary confinement can have significant policy implications in areas such as the level and frequency of monitoring in prisons, programming to improve mental health, and current assessment strategies.

Prominent psychiatrists, such as Dr. Terry Kupers from the Wright Institute, have dedicated much of their research to the harm and injustices of solitary confinement. In a radio interview, Kupers emphasized the harsh reality of prison suicides and how they are becoming the only recognized indication of psychological distress in inmates. In reality, these suicides are a result of a long list of symptoms caused by confinement including anxiety, paranoia, memory problems, and despair. Notably, these symptoms are aggravated by the conditions of the prison, where inmates are forced under fluorescent lights with no stimulation of any kind.

With all of the evidence of the consequences of solitary confinement, why is it still so prevalent in North American prisons? Advocates for the practice argue that solitary confinement, in and of itself, is not harmful. For instance, Correctional Service Canada states that solitary confinement is used as a means to reduce prison violence. It is also an often reasoned that the mental health problems that inmates display in solitary confinement are simply demonstrations pre-existing disorders.

One of the most cited studies rejecting the harm of solitary confinement was conducted by the Colorado Department of Corrections. The study found that intense psychological disturbances are not unique to the environment of solitary confinement, and that some study groups arguably improved. The study suggests that while negative psychological measures could be found in inmates, these measures were not directly circumstantial to being in solitary.

This controversial study has received significant criticism. The critiques revolved around the motivation of the study and poor methodology, as well as the failure to acknowledge alternate explanations. Stuart Grassian, the psychiatrist best known for uncovering the Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement  in the Journal of Law & Policy, is one of the main opponents of the study and is attempting to completely disprove it. Grassian argues that if reports like this are taken as truth, the effects on policy could be crippling.

To truly understand the effects of solitary confinement, however, we must listen to the voices of those who have endured such treatment. The chilling words of prisoner William Blake, who has been held in solitary confinement at Elmira Correctional Facility in New York for the past quarter century, highlight the brutality of his sentence. In his award-winning essay, Blake concedes that solitary confinement “is torture of a terrible kind” and that he has “served a sentence worse than death.”

The prevailing evidence on solitary confinement clearly demonstrates its inherent flaws. There is a distinct difference between reasonable punishment and a violation of an individual’s human rights. The same moral tenet that is applied to the abolition of the death penalty in Canada should be applied to the reform of administrative segregation. If policy makers fail to recognize this principle, the harmful consequences are bound to progress.

Delaney Cummings is currently pursuing her Certificate in Freelance Writing from the University of Toronto. She has a BA (Hons) in Sociology from the University of Western Ontario. Her policy interests include mental health care, education, and foreign policy.  

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