A sign asking to stop solitary confinement in prison is posted outside the Connecticut State Capitol. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

In the coming weeks, the legislature will vote on Senate Bill 459, also known as the Protect Act, a critical piece of legislation that protects the humanity of incarcerated people while promoting the safety and health of all people who work and live inside prisons. 

The bill codifies into law Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order to ensure that no one is in solitary confinement beyond 15 days, increases the minimal time out of one’s cell to five hours per day, provides a powerful structure for oversight and requires that the Department of Corrections implement strategies to support correctional officers and mitigate trauma and its effects including burnout and suicide. 

Vamsi Koneru

I am writing as a clinical psychologist and member of the Stop Solitary CT coalition urging you to support SB 459.

In my work as a psychologist, I have the great privilege to see moments of tremendous vulnerability and courage.  My work focuses on working with survivors of trauma, many of whom are in our criminal justice system.  Mental health and incarceration have tremendous overlap, as over 50% of incarcerated individuals struggle with mental health issues and over 90% of individuals have a history of significant adversity and trauma, often stemming from childhood.

We know that there are many treatment options for trauma and mental health issues that can be beneficial.  A common thread of these treatments is the presence of safe, stable, nurturing relationships, as well as the opportunity to experience patterned, rhythmic and collective activity.. Both of these help regulate the nervous system, foster resilience and promote recovery.

Solitary confinement, in which individuals with mental health issues are disproportionately placed, could not be further from treatment standards we know to be beneficial for survivors of trauma.  The practice disregards the basic concepts of human rights and dignity and is torturous, oppressive and inhumane.  It retraumatizes individuals who entered into incarceration with histories of trauma. In addition to these serious ethical concerns, the deprivation and dehumanization embedded in this practice undoubtedly worsens the health of an already highly vulnerable population.

How might this practice contribute to worsening someone’s health?  In other words, what happens in the brain and body of someone in solitary confinement?

When a person experiences increased anxiety, our bodies produce stress hormones that stimulate our hearts to beat faster, raise our blood pressure and blood sugar and activate our immune systems. The amygdala, or the brain’s fear center, is activated while the prefrontal cortex, the seat of language, judgement and thought, is inhibited. These are normal responses for short-term stressors and in most cases will get activated and de-activated quickly.

The stress and isolation of solitary confinement is constant and unrelenting, which causes individuals in such confinement to have a chronic, over-active stress response, also known as the Toxic Stress Response.  The Toxic Stress Response can lead to lasting changes in brain structure and function including significant over-activity in the amygdala and persistent inhibition of the prefrontal cortex.

Additionally, this response is associated with many severe health consequences including doubling the risk for heart disease, respiratory illness, behavioral health issues and can reduce a person’s life expectancy by up to 20 years.  In Connecticut there are many people confined to their cells for over 20 hours a day, and as a result, we know that their bodies and brains, in response to this unrelenting sensory deprivation and social isolation, will respond in predictably detrimental ways.

A century prior to the publication of the above-mentioned science, the Supreme Court wrote about individuals in solitary confinement and noted “it becomes impossible to arouse them, and others become violently insane; others, still, commit suicide; while those who stand the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

More than 95% of incarcerated people will return to the community. Do we want them to be broken, unable to connect with others and to struggle to be of service or able to live a life that is marked by contribution and meaning?   How can we support individuals so that they are not re-traumatized by their incarceration? (For a well-grounded presentation related to this question, please see Stop Solitary CT’s report:  Alternatives to Isolation.) 

How can we become more curious about humane solutions as opposed to modeling cruelty and vengeance? Standing up for the health and humanity of all human beings by supporting the Protect Act is a critical step in this direction.

Vamsi Koneru Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in West Hartford.