Solitary confinement study "deeply flawed," says ACLU

As reported here last summer, a controversial state study suggesting no harmful psychological effects from solitary confinement was drawing heated protests from prison activists even before it was published. Now that it's been released, psychiatric experts and the ACLU of Colorado are saying the report is just -- well, crazy.

Can life in lockup be good for you? The Colorado Department of Corrections thinks so.

After studying and testing close to 250 inmates confined to administrative segregation (that's prison-speak for "the hole") at the state supermax and elsewhere over several months, researchers found little or no deterioration in the subjects' mental state as a result of their isolation. In fact, "there was initial improvement in psychological well-being across all study groups," regardless of whether the prisoners were mentally ill or not at the time they were sent to ad-seg.

The findings are at odds with most of the scientific literature on the effects of solitary, which has prompted respected researchers -- including Stuart Grassian, a pioneer at Harvard in studying the issue -- to question the study's methodology and omissions. In this broadside from the ACLU, psychiatrist Terry Kupers calls the study "so deeply flawed that I would consider the conclusions almost entirely erroneous."

"The researchers did not even spend time talking to the subjects about their experience in supermax," Kupers notes. "And far from finding 'no harm,' there were many episodes of psychosis and suicidal behavior during the course of the study. The researchers merely minimize the emotional pain and suffering because they judge the prisoners to have been already damaged before they arrived at supermax."

Other critics have taken issue with how subjects were selected for the study, possible pressure on the inmates to report positive experiences in the hope of better evaluations, and other alleged flaws.

But there's one point in the debate both sides agree about. Although the DOC research suggests that mentally ill inmates are less likely to get worse in solitary than the mentally ill in the general prison population, it also confirms that there are a lot of prisoners diagnosed with mental illness sitting in solitary confinement. Records of "emergency psychiatric contacts" indicate two incidents for every three inmates in solitary, compared to less than one in ten in other prisons.

For more on solitary confinement in Colorado, see our Crime and Punishment archive.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast