Suffering alone: The effect of solitary confinement on inmates


Natalie Venable

Entrance into former bathroom at Angel Island's Immigration Station.

Do you think solitary confinement negatively impacts the mental health of detainees?

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Imprisoned. Deteriorating. Isolated. Hopeless.

In a jail cell this inadequate, bound by metal bars, many inmates face a decline in mental health. Throughout history, there have been incidents of conditions being barely adequate for the contained.

From 1910 to 1940, Angel Island, an island off the coast of San Francisco, processed immigrants, detaining many who entered. One of the island’s park rangers said that “if you were a man and a woman travelling together, you would be separated…There were definitely documented cases where parents did not see their children during their stay. And they were definitely asking to see them. And were very frustrated about that.”

This idea of isolation grew far beyond than just in-between families, with individuals being quarantined, unable to communicate with any outsiders, forced to suppress fear, hatred, anger, and longing.

Even with the understanding of the struggle and suffering of those in the past, conditions have not improved for detainees; rather, there is evidence they have gotten worse.

In 2004, the Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that more than 50 percent of those who were medicated for mental health conditions at admission did not receive proper medication in prison.

The more you put people [in] isolation, the sicker they get.”

— Seema Moondra

Today, 70 percent of youth in juvenile centers, 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have at least one mental health condition according to a study by National Alliance of Mental Illness. The presence of isolation and solitary confinement has led to an even larger affliction, one that affects not just physical health, but the mental health of the inmates.

Mental Health Problems Created by Prison

Over time, isolation can lead to mental health issues such as depression and social anxiety according to the website Goodtherapy. While isolation is not an experience exclusive to being incarcerated, prisoners are forced into these situations. Most prisons have strict policies surrounding mail and magazine subscriptions, effectively cutting inmates off from the outside world.

An example of bringing the metaphorical cutting off to a literal level would be Alcatraz and its predecessor, Angel Island. Angel Island is widely known for being an immigration station off the coast of San Francisco. However, prior to being an immigration station, it was a federal prison.

“I’m totally not into putting people in prisons; that is the wrong way of making people realize their mistakes,” Seema Moondra, an Angel Island visitor and former Board of Education representative, said. “Incarcerating people is not good for our country, because we are only creating more people with resentment.”

In more specific terms, solitary confinement has proven to show negative psychological effects on inmates, according to the New York University Online Publication of Undergraduate Studies.

“Confined prisoners also report feelings of panic and rage, including irritability, hostility, and poor impulse control,” Mary Murphy Corcoran said in her article titled “Effects of Solitary Confinement On the Well Being of Prison Inmates.” The article also that prisoners in isolation also “frequently exhibit symptoms of anxiety that vary from low levels of stress to severe panic attacks.”

The severity of psychological damage depends on the inmate and the amount of time they spend in solitary confinement.

“These depressive symptoms may even escalate to thoughts of self-harm and suicide,” Murphy wrote. “As compared to the general prison population, rates of suicide and self-harm, such as cutting and banging one’s head against the cell wall, are particularly high in prisoners assigned to solitary confinement.”

Mental Health Worsened by Prison

Isolation can be a problem for prisoners with no pre-existing mental illness, as well as already mentally ill inmates.

Mentally ill inmates, according to The Crime Report, are 36 percent more likely to be chosen for solitary confinement than other detainees. The Treatment Advocacy Center concluded that they make up more than 33 percent of those in solitary confinement for the majority of the states that still use this method.

The Treatment Advocacy Center also found that New Mexico has the highest proportion, with 64 percent of its inmates in solitary confinement being mentally ill. These prisoners are more disruptive and often refuse to take their medicine. Isolation can be seen as the only option for mentally ill, especially in institutions that have a lack of resources, space and staff.

In response to a question about prison, Moondra said, “the more you put people [in] isolation, the sicker they get … [The inmates] should be put in a school or in an education facility and actually made to go to school.”

The use of solitary confinement can make the mentally ill inmate’s condition worse. According to The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, solitary confinement “can exacerbate symptoms of illness or provoke recurrence.” Solitary confinement also limits the access and amount of mental health services that prisoners are able to receive as inmates are usually in solitary confinement for 22 to 24 hours a day.

As a result of solitary confinement, social depression and anxiety arise. The isolation of prisoners detained by iron bars doesn’t just impose upon their lifestyle; it can disrupt their healthy mental composition.