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Isolation and suicide


Many studies on the interaction between the kind of housing an inmate is placed in and reports of suicide and self-mutilation show that there is often a coloration with solitary confinement and isolated housing (Haney 2003).

When comparing those who commit suicide in the general population versus inmates placed in solitary confinement two researchers, Bonta and Gendreau, stated the following: “Inmate suicides for a 20-year period in the United States were at a rate of 17.5 per 100,000 inmates in contrast to 11 per 100,000 people in the general population”(Bonta, Gendreau 1990, p. 19).

In a quantitative study done by researchers Smith, Wolford-Clevenger, Mandracchia and Jahn, 399 incarcerated adult males in Mississippi were sampled using the Acquired Capability for Suicide Scale to assess if they were at a certain level of risk to commit suicide. Their findings suggested that even though many of the men they sampled had previous adverse experiences before incarceration, that the level of trauma that the experience of solitary confinement created did not effect if the male prisoners were more likely or less likely to commit suicide.

Personal Accounts:

Quantitative research is an important part of understanding, examining and assessing the numbers and statistics of prisoners in solitary confinement, although qualitative research is where we can begin to understand the emotional, psychological and mental experiences that prisoners living in segregation experience on an individual level. Judith Vasquez, William Blake, and Cesar Villa are three prisoners that previously or currently live in solitary confinement. These are their personal accounts…

Judith Vasquez.

Judith Vasquez was born in 1956, and grew up in Harlem New York with her parents who had relocated from Puerto Rico. Vasquez was arrested in 1992 and tried in 1995; her sentence was for first-degree murder. She was sentenced to 30 years to life. Vasquez maintains her innocence in this case, even now. From 1992 to 1995, while she was waiting for her trial, Vasquez was kept in solitary confinement without being given an explanation as to why. This is how Judith Vasquez’s describes her experience in solitary confinement:

“After I arrived at state prison, I suffered years of rape by guards. I became pregnant and was forced to abort in my cell without any medical aid. Due to the depression and desperation I felt because I had nowhere to turn to for help, I then found myself back in solitary by my own choice. The day after my arrest, after having bail set at court, upon my return to the county jail, the guards escorted me from population into another area. I was supposed to remain in population while I awaited trial, but they placed me in an area that held just three cells. These cells were meant for females only, and next door through a glass window you could see the men’s side, which had more than ten cells. The three cells were empty; I was the only female there. I remember asking the officer why I was there; she said the judge had ordered I be placed there. I thought it was for a night or two, but it turned out to be a nightmare. I went in and never came out until three years later” (Casella, Ridgeway, & Shourd 2016, p. 55-56).

William Blake.

William Blake is currently in confinement inside the “Special Housing Unit” located inside New York’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility. This is his 29th year in solitary confinement. At the age of 23, Blake took a gun from a sheriff deputy and tried to escape. In the process he shot and killed one of the deputies. Blake is currently serving a sentence of 77 years to life and has been deemed a permanent risk to the safety of the prison. This is most likely because he harmed an officer. In his personal account of some of his experiences in solitary confinement, he was recognized by the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Writing Contest. Here is an excerpt from his essay:

“There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and although you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in. I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey. I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed stuck in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me who have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their beds, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU, and I have witnessed the results” (Casella, Ridgeway, & Shourd 2016, p. 27-28).

Cesar Villa.

Cesar Villa has been incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit since 2001. He was convicted of 348 years to life for his third conviction of robbery. Cesar Villa was deemed a gang member by an “anonymous informant”, that told gang investigators at the prison that “Pancho” was Villa’s gang alias. All it takes for a prisoner to be deemed a gang member is evidence such as a drawing, a letter, a name or even the wrong book in their possession (Casella, Ridgeway, & Shourd 2016). This is Cesar Villa’s personal account of his experience in solitary confinement:

“Fourteen years have passed since I entered the SHU on gang validation. This year I’ll be fifty-five years old. When I first arrived I was attentive and, if you’ll excuse the expression, bright-eyed. I thought I could beat “this thing,” whatever “this thing” was. I confess—I was ignorant. Today, I can be found at my cell front, my fingers stuffed through the perforated metal door—I hang limp—my head angled in a daze. My mind is lost in a dense fog of nothingness. I’m withering away—I know it—and I no longer care. Hopelessness is a virus I hide under my tongue like a magic pebble. If only that shiny stone could assist in deciphering warbled language in a cellblock full of grunts and floods of ignorance from convicts without tongues. Someone screams behind me, “Waste not, want not.” But what’s to waste when all you are is a virus that no one’s allowed to touch. Concentration is an abstract invention for those with only half a mind—and half a mind is a terrible thing to waste” (Casella, Ridgeway, & Shourd 2016, p. 36).


Appelbaum, K. L. (2015). American psychiatry should join the call to abolish solitary confinement. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 43(4), 406.

Bonta, J., & Gendreau, P. (1990). Reexamining the cruel and unusual punishment of prison life. Law and Human Behavior, 14(4), 347-372.

Casella, J., Ridgeway, J., & Shourd, S. (2016). Hell is a very small place: Voices from solitary confinement.

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Franke, K. L. (2014). Qualitative phenomenological study of inmates’ lived experience in a supermax program.

Haney, C. (2003). Mental health issues in long-term solitary and “supermax” confinement. Crime & Delinquency, 49(1), 124-156.

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Reiter, K. A. (2012). Parole, snitch, or die: California’s supermax prisons and prisoners, 1997-2007. Punishment & Society, 14(5), 530-563.

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Smith, P. N., Wolford-Clevenger, C., Mandracchia, J. T., & Jahn, D. R. (2013). An exploratory factor analysis of the Acquired Capability for Suicide Scale in male prison inmates. Psychological Services, 10(1), 97-105.

Yang, S., Kadouri, A., Révah-Lévy, A., Mulvey, E. P., & Falissard, B. (2009). Doing time: A qualitative study of long-term incarceration and the impact of mental illness. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(5), 294-303.

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