THE COLORADO FILES
When we visited Colorado recently, prisoner advocates were awaiting the results of a year-long, federally funded study on how solitary confinement affects mental health. The study was conducted in the Colorado State Penitentiary, a supermax prison where all 700+ inmates live in long-term isolation. CSP, which is located outside prison-laden Cañon City, was the subject of a recent National Geographic documentary on solitary, as well as an earlier Frontline special on children in adult prisons. (Clips from both can be found in our video feed, in the sidebar of this site.)
Information from a leaked early copy of the study report had already outraged prison reformers, since it seemed to say solitary confinement had no detrimental psychological effects. The final report, released a week ago, goes even further, claiming that in many cases solitary was “good” for prisoners’ mental health. Today, the Denver Post‘s Susan Greene, who writes frequently about prison issues, provided an excellent summary of the controversy surrounding the study’s findings.
A controversial study by Colorado’s Corrections Department claims to debunk the widely held theory that solitary confinement harms prisoners.
Findings seem to show not just a lack of deterioration in mental health after long periods with virtually no human contact, but also, incredibly, some slight improvement.
The report is being ripped for its methodology. Detractors fear it will prompt Colorado and other states to warehouse more inmates in prolonged isolation.
“It’s garbage in, garbage out,” says Stuart Grassian, the psychiatrist internationally recognized for describing the crippling effects of solitary confinement. “Their approach is fatally flawed.”
Others — including some notable critics of isolation — defend the study.
“I was certainly surprised by its findings. We all were. But this is a serious piece of research,” says Jamie Fellner, a top lawyer with Human Rights Watch who serves on the state’s advisory board.
State Corrections chief researcher Maureen O’Keefe has said her office launched the project largely because her department was concerned about being sued for civil-rights violations. Colorado houses 6.2 percent of its prisoners in so-called “administrative segregation,” far more than the national average.
The state snagged federal funding to spend a year researching the psychological effects of keeping human beings locked up 23 hours a day with almost no social interaction, their food pushed through slots in their doors. The 24th hour is for exercise and showers, also alone.
The expectation was that prisoners would get worse.
Instead, the report claims to show the opposite effect — a slight “improvement in psychological well-being across all study groups.” It doesn’t discount emotional distress, yet concludes that solitary confinement didn’t cause it.
Critics deride researchers for starting mainly with inmates experiencing mental health crises at the beginning of their study. In other words, they say, their base line was slanted.
Detractors question the truthfulness of inmates’ responses. If you’re trying to earn your way out of isolation, the argument goes, you wouldn’t admit mental health problems.
Critics also cite the so-called Hawthorne Effect — the phenomenon of modifying behavior simply by being studied. In this case, researchers have dubbed it the “Alysha Effect” after the attractive grad student sent to interview the lonely inmates. Two participants were thrown out of the study because they made sexual advances.
“In any study, there’s always plausible alternative explanations,” says O’Keefe, who has referred to the study as her “baby.”
Colorado relies too heavily on prisons as its mental health safety net. Isolation costs far more than general prison housing. The Corrections Department recently got $9.37 million to open 316 new solitary cells.
“It’s unlikely that Colorado prison officials wanted their study to show that their current practices are extremely damaging,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
“The fact that it’s not driving every healthy person nuts doesn’t mean it’s a good thing,” adds Fellner from Human Rights Watch.
Grassian is seeking to discredit the report among mental health experts and with the National Institute of Justice.
“We need to realize that 95 percent of these inmates will eventually be released back onto the streets,” he says. “Housing them in these conditions ensures that when they do leave they’ll be as violent and as out of control as we could possibly have made them.”
In a recent documentary, even Colorado State Penitentiary Warden Susan Jones questioned how history will judge Colorado’s experiment in human isolation:
“Twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, they may be looking back at us and saying that wasn’t a great answer, a great response, we should have known better.”
Although the study’s intentions and methodology are being sharply criticized–and although there are several compelling studies that came to the opposite conclusions–the Colorado report will no doubt be quoted by defenders of solitary confinement for years or decades to come.
We couldn’t find the full report anywhere on the web (though it was funded by our federal tax dollars and yours), so we are posting it here. (If you tried to download it earlier and failed, try again–this is a new and improved link.)