Monday, April 22, 2013

New Study Refutes Common Belief About Effects of Solitary Confinement

It has been commonly believed for some years now that prolonged solitary confinement in prison is psychologically damaging. Now a "carefully performed study calls those beliefs into question," Paul Appelbaum, M.D., the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia University and a past APA president, told Psychiatric News. "The intuition that many people have that, 'If they ever put me in solitary, I'd go crazy,' just doesn't reflect what actually occurs." The study was conducted by Jeffrey Metzner, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado, and colleagues. The results were published in the March Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

The study included 270 Colorado prison inmates who had violated prison rules and who, following a hearing, were placed in one of three different prison environments—solitary confinement for inmates with or without mental illness, a general population maximum-security housing unit for inmates with or without mental illness, or a special housing unit for inmates with mental illness. The subjects were followed for a year. The researchers found that while some of the inmates' psychological health deteriorated over the course of the study, this was generally not the case, even among inmates in solitary confinement. "We were surprised that only a small number of inmates in segregation got clinically worse," Metzner told Psychiatric News.

So what might explain these surprising results? "Administrative segregation may not  be pleasant, but based on these data, it appears that prisoners—even prisoners with mental illness—find ways of adapting that mitigate negative consequences," said Appelbaum, who is also chair of the APA Committee on Judicial Action.

To read more about the controversy over the psychological impact of solitary confinement, see Psychiatric News.

(Image: James Steidl/


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