Two weeks ago, just past midnight, the PROTECT Act passed through the state legislature. Now, this historic bill sits on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont. Connecticut has the opportunity to substantially limit the harmful practice of solitary confinement, and our state’s path toward evidence-based and humane treatment of incarcerated people depends on his signature.
I am a forensic psychiatrist and have spent my career providing care to people in the criminal-legal system, including in the Connecticut Department of Correction. I have extensively studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement, and over the past decade I have advised the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, state legislatures, federal courts, correctional systems, and advocacy groups about mental health treatment and the use of solitary confinement in prisons. My years of experience with solitary have led me to an unambiguous conclusion: conditions of extreme isolation are damaging and counterproductive.
It is a well-documented fact that solitary confinement can cause lasting emotional damage, both during isolation and even years after release. Suicide rates are seven times higher in solitary confinement than in the general prison population, and the risk of suicide remains elevated after release. Similarly, individuals who have spent time in solitary confinement are at increased risk of death in the year after they return to the community, showing that the harms of such conditions are not cured simply by unlocking the cell door.
The most vulnerable prisoners face the highest risk of these serious psychological effects. Solitary confinement is used disproportionately on very young people, people of color, people with serious mental illnesses, people with intellectual disabilities, and people who have been traumatized. Approximately 30% of prisoners in solitary confinement have a diagnosed mental illness, which is roughly twice the rate in the general prison population. Replacing necessary mental health treatment with conditions that have been proven to increase the likelihood of death is clinically unsound and deeply inhumane.
The lasting harms of solitary confinement are often inflicted in the name of safety and security. Indeed, lawmakers critical of the PROTECT Act, or SB 1059, raised security concerns in the House of Representatives’ hours-long debate on the bill. Having worked within the Connecticut prison system and served as an advisor for other correctional departments, I understand that the safety of incarcerated people and staff is paramount in a prison setting. However, time and again, research has indicated that solitary does not make prisons safer. The practice is a demonstrated failure at reforming behavior and preventing misconduct. When you compare prisoners’ institutional misconduct before and after being locked in solitary confinement, there is no difference at all in the frequency or severity of misconduct.
In fact, limiting solitary confinement has been shown to increase staff and prisoner safety. When alternatives to solitary were implemented in Maine, Massachusetts, and Virginia, all three states saw significant reductions in violence in their facilities. If you fear for the safety of individuals who live and work in our prisons, your solution lies with SB 1059, not with solitary. We do not need to pick between protecting people from psychological torment and protecting people from violence. When it comes to solitary confinement, choosing humanity is also choosing safety.
When our state legislature passed the PROTECT Act, it was a powerful rejection of solitary confinement. It was a rejection of the grave harm caused by an outdated and ineffective practice. The bill is now in Governor Lamont’s hands. His signature will determine whether we move toward an evidence-based, humane approach to treating prisoners, or whether we will continue to inflict severe, lasting psychological harm for the sake of a practice that does not work. I hope he does Connecticut justice.
Reena Kapoor, MD, is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry; Associate Program Director, Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship at the Yale School of Medicine.