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News > Science and Tech

US: Over 4000 Prisoners in Solitary Suffer from Mental Illness

  • "They’re burying them alive in the prison system," said Amy Fettig, the Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. | Photo: Reuters

Published 10 October 2018

Over half of New Mexico's mentally ill prisoners are kept in isolation, while nationally, 2,000 inmates have been in solitary for over six years.

Over 4,000 U.S. prisoners forced into solitary confinement suffer from serious mental illness, a survey from Yale law researchers and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) shows.


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Prisoners are confined to small spaces without human contact for 22 hours a day for sometimes 15 days or more, the Guardian reports, noting that such treatment only aggravates existing, serious mental conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

“They are basically being subjected to torture,” said Amy Fettig, the Deputy Director of the ACLU National Prison Project.

Of the 33 states who participated in the survey, one third reported that at least 10 percent of their male inmates suffered from some mental health illness. In New Mexico, over 60 percent of their mentally ill prisoners are kept in isolation, while nationally, nearly 2,000 inmates have been held in solitary for over six years.

“Part of the issue here is we have turned jails and prisons into mental health hospitals, and they aren’t mental health hospitals...They’re burying them alive in the prison system,” said Fettig, adding that the custom is a complete violation of the 8 constitutional amendment which protects citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Fettig continued on to say that prison treatment and diagnosis for mental health conditions are “notoriously bad.”

In her book, Insane: America's Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, Journalist Alisa Roth writes, "You see people who are desperately sick. I mean, desperately sick. One time when I was [at the Los Angeles County jail], corrections officers came out with a man who had been strapped into a wheelchair and was bleeding from his arm because he had scratched out a piece of his own flesh.

“And they opened the little door in the cell where you hand food trays through, and there was this almost overpowering smell of feces because this man had smeared the walls of his cell," Roth said.

"It's easy to portray these people as monsters or otherworldly, and I think we need to remember they're real people who are just not getting the treatment they need. Another thing that struck me there was this sense of people cycling through. We talk about the civilian mental health care system and the criminal justice system as two separate entities,” the journalist said.

Despite encouraging reports which show a decrease of some 40,000 isolation cases nationwide, the Guardian reports that the rate of inmates placed in solitary confinement in institutions in at least 11 states continues to grow.

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