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Racial Inequalities and the Future of Solitary Confinement


Using statistics from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, K.A. Reiter was able to determine what race the prisoners and parolees are, the amount of time they were placed in solitary confinement, and how often they were released.

Reiter found that every month in California 75 prisoners are released directly from solitary confinement straight to parole (Reiter 2012, n.p.). According to Reiter , there are three ways in which you will be able to leave solitary confinement: parole, snitching (i.e. debriefing) or death. Furthermore, Reiter’s research shows that in California, “Hispanics” are disproportionately more likely to spend time in the Special Housing Units (SHU), than any other ethnicity or races.

Statistics have shown that in at least eight of the supermax prisons, the percentages of Caucasians places in solitary confinement is the lowest. African-American and Hispanic prisoners make up the largest percentage of prisoners housed in the SHU/segregation/solitary confinement/isolation in the United States.

Research also shows that “The mental health risks posed by this new form of imprisonment are clear and direct, exacerbated by the tendency of correctional systems to place a disproportionate number of previously determined mentally ill prisoners in supermax confinement, to ignore emerging signs of mental illness among the prison population, and to fail to provide fully adequate therapeutic assistance to those prisoners who are in psychic pain and emotional distress” (Haney, 2003, p. 148). Not only does solitary confinement disproportionately target Hispanics and African Americans, it also targets mentally ill prisoners.

The use of this ‘disciplinary tool’, which some deem as torture, as a way to rehabilitate or control the “worst of the worst” is often considered a human rights violation. Research has shown empirical evidence that solitary confinement only produces negative, traumatizing consequences.

The behavioral sciences as well as the psychological community need to get more involved in  this debate, and more involved in the misuse of power in correctional facilities as a whole. The research has provided not only evidence, but also statistics showing the inequalities of prisoners placed in solitary confinement based on mental illness and race. There has been no evidence that has shown any benefit to this method.

“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life,” said Nelson Mandela, a prisoner who had been placed in solitary confinement during his sentence. “There is no end and no beginning; there is only ones mind, which can begin to play tricks…was that a dream or did it really happen?…One begins to question everything.”

Much of the current research on the effects of solitary confinement are limited. Although there has been a plethora of research in regards to the pros and cons of solitary confinement, it has been somewhat ignored by the psychological community.

This is a human rights issue, and it will take policy changes, advocacy and pressure from the behavioral health field as well as the psychology field to abolish solitary confinement, and implement new approaches that will use proven methods of rehabilitation instead of the use of the torture that is solitary confinement.

“The important determination of what, if any, legitimate role this kind of imprisonment should have in an effective and humane prison system can only be made with its psychological effects clearly in mind… the best available evidence indicates very clearly that many supermax-like conditions of confinement inflict extraordinary levels of psychological pain and create substantial mental health risks” (Appelbaum, 2015, p. 151).

It is the job of professionals working in criminal justice, behavioral sciences and psychology to put an end to this legalized torture of human beings.


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.

Cloud, D. H., Drucker, E., Browne, A., & Parsons, J. (2015). Public health and solitary confinement in the united states. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 18-26.

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.

Mears, D. P. (2013). Supermax prisons. Criminology & Public Policy, 12(4), 681-719.

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

Schlanger, M. (2013). Prison segregation: Symposium introduction and preliminary data on racial disparities. Michigan Journal of Race and Law, 18. Retrieved May 25, 2016, from http://ssrn.com/abstract=2237979

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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