by Maureen O'Keefe
One researcher who specializes in corrections discusses the study's strengths and limitations, the impassioned response to its findings, and areas for further research.
The practice of incarcerating inmates in long-term segregation is an emotionally charged topic. Human rights advocates oppose it, particularly for inmates with mental illness, while corrections personnel deem it necessary for the safe operation of their facilities. The practice has been criticized as being psychologically damaging, excessively harsh and inhumane (i.e., lack of programs and services, minimal control over environment, limited access to the outdoors), prone to abuses by staff, and lacking in adequate step-down programs for those releasing to the streets. Media coverage and litigation have fueled the debate, while advocates and researchers have called attention to the lack of quality research, including the lack of evidence supporting its effectiveness in reducing prison violence.
A research team in Colorado sought to fill a gap in the research and advance the empirical dialogue around segregation. With support from NIJ, researchers (including the author), academics, prison officials, and human rights advocates conducted a longitudinal study of the psychological effects of solitary confinement, particularly for inmates diagnosed with a mental illness. We had hoped that empirical evidence would help develop some common ground — but instead our findings seemed to divide the sides even further.