When it comes to the psychological effects of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, there are three acknowledged experts: Drs. Stuart Grassian, Craig Haney, and Terry Kupers. The three have collaborated on a joint statement on the closure of Tamms supermax prison, which was proposed last month by Illinois governor Pat Quinn. The statement is directed at the relevant committee of the Illinois state legislature, which will hold hearings on the prison closure next week. We are publishing this important statement in full.
Comments by Dr. Stuart Grassian, Dr. Craig Haney, and Dr. Terry Kupers to the April 2, 2012 Hearing of the Illinois Legislature Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability regarding the proposal to close Tamms Correctional Center
Tamms Correctional Center has been open for over ten years, and some of its resident prisoners have been at the facility since it opened. We have been informed that the Governor of Illinois has recommended that the Tamms facility be closed. As three long-time researchers and nationally recognized experts on the psychological effects of solitary confinement, we write to express our strong support of that recommendation.
We believe that the Governor’s recommendation is entirely consistent with a growing national trend away from the use of long-term solitary confinement. Of course, there are compelling economic justifications that partially explain this trend. Supermax prisons such as Tamms are very expensive to operate. In addition, however, there are important mental health concerns and public safety justifications that support this development. Research has shown that long-term solitary confinement places prisoners at grave risk of significant psychological harm. Because this kind of confinement is not only painful but also potentially damaging—and, for some prisoners, perhaps irreversibly so—it can be a cruel and singularly inappropriate form of punishment. Beyond doing more to debilitate than rehabilitate the prisoners who are subjected to it, solitary confinement undermines the ability of many of them to succeed in the community after their eventual release from prison. This evidence—that it appears to increase rather than reduce recidivism—raises public safety concerns.
The structure and operation of supermaximum security units such as Tamms are conducive to the creation of a punitive atmosphere and even a “culture of cruelty” that can harden and dispirit prisoners and correctional officers alike. Aspects of its negative atmosphere and culture may spread to and negatively affect prevailing attitudes and practices in the larger correctional system. Moreover, supermax prisons such as Tamms do not reliably reduce violence or disciplinary infractions within the larger prison systems in which they function; in some instances they appear to make it worse. Nor do they alleviate the problem of prison gangs. The California Department of Corrections has aggressively pursued the use of long-term solitary confinement for more than 20 years and the state prison system is now plagued with perhaps the worst gang problem in the nation.
Our views on these matters are based on a careful review of the existing literature on solitary confinement and our own direct observations and analyses of the effects of long-term solitary confinement in work that we have been engaged in for more than three decades. Each of us has toured and inspected numerous “supermax”-type penal institutions, interviewed and evaluated numerous prisoners confined under these severe conditions, and discussed isolation practices and procedures with correctional staff and officials from around the country. We have sometimes been asked to render expert opinions in legal cases that were focused on whether being housed in supermax facilities such as Tamms constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” One of us (Dr. Haney) is an academic psychologist and two of us (Drs. Grassian & Kupers) are university-affiliated psychiatrists.
More specifically, Dr. Haney is a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology. He began his study of prisons as one of the principal researchers who conducted the well-known “Stanford Prison Experiment” in the early 1970s, and has studied the psychology of imprisonment in actual prisons since then. Dr. Haney’s study of long-term solitary confinement includes a systematic analysis of the effects of confinement inside a “state-of-the-art” supermax prison that housed prisoners who had committed serious disciplinary infractions or were suspected of prison gang activity. Haney’s use of a random (and therefore representative) sample of prisoners in supermax confinement allowed him to establish prevalence rates (i.e., an estimate of how widespread the psychological reactions were among the group of persons confined in supermax). This study found extraordinarily high rates of symptoms of psychological trauma. More than four out of five of those evaluated suffered from feelings of anxiety and nervousness, headaches, troubled sleep, and lethargy or chronic tiredness, and over half complained of nightmares, heart palpitations, and fear of impending nervous breakdowns. Equally high numbers reported specific psychopathological effects of social isolation obsessive ruminations, confused thought processes, an oversensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, and social withdrawal. Well over half reported violent fantasies, emotional flatness, mood swings, chronic depression, and feelings of overall deterioration, while nearly half suffered from hallucinations and perceptual distortions, and a quarter experienced suicidal ideation.
Dr. Grassian did pioneering work on the harmful psychological effects of solitary confinement and is responsible for drawing heightened attention to its harmful consequences in the early 1980s. In his initial article on the topic, Dr. Grassian reported on 15 prisoners kept in isolation for varying amounts of time at a Massachusetts prison. Dr. Grassian described a particular psychiatric syndrome resulting from the deprivation of social, perceptual, and occupational stimulation in solitary confinement. This syndrome has basically the features of a delirium, and among the more vulnerable population, can result in an acute agitated psychosis, and random violence – often directed towards the self, and at times resulting in suicide. He has also demonstrated in numerous cases that the prisoners who end up in solitary confinement are generally not, as claimed, “the worst of the worse”; they are, instead, the sickest, most emotionally labile, impulse-ridden and psychiatrically vulnerable among the prison population.
Two-thirds of the prisoners Dr. Grassian initially studied had become hypersensitive to external stimuli (noises, smells, etc.) and about the same number experienced “massive free floating anxiety.” About half of the prisoners suffered from perceptual disturbances that for some included hallucinations and perceptual illusions, and another half complained of cognitive difficulties such as confusional states, difficulty concentrating, and memory lapses. About a third also described thought disturbances such as paranoia, aggressive fantasies, and impulse control problems. Three out of the fifteen had cut themselves in suicide attempts while in isolation. In almost all instances the prisoners had not previously experienced any of these psychiatric reactions.
Dr. Terry Kupers has been studying the plight of mentally ill prisoners for decades. In part because of the high prevalence of serious mental illness he discovered in many of the supermax facilities that he toured, he has written extensively about the harm that long-term isolated confinement causes in prisoners, especially those suffering from serious psychiatric conditions. As one stunning index of the magnitude of this harm, national data indicate that fully half of the suicides that occur in a prison system occur among the 4% to 8% of the prisoners who are consigned to segregation or isolation. Recently, he served as an expert witness, and then as a court-approved monitor, in litigation in Mississippi that required the Department of Corrections (Mississippi DOC) to ameliorate substandard conditions at the super-maximum Unit 32 of Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, remove prisoners with serious mental illness (SMI) from administrative segregation and provide them with adequate treatment, and re-examine the entire classification system. Pursuant to two federal consent decrees, the MDOC greatly reduced the population in administrative segregation and established a step-down mental health treatment unit for the prisoners excluded from administrative segregation. After 800 of the approximately 1,000 prisoners in the super-maximum security unit were transferred out of isolated confinement, there was a large reduction in the rates of misconduct and violence, not only among the prisoners transferred out of supermax, but in the entire Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Supermax prisons and the long-term solitary confinement to which they are dedicated represent an unjustified return to a long-discredited 19th century penal practice, one seized upon at a time of dangerous and unprecedented overcrowding that overwhelmed correctional systems across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather than a “best practices” approach to the impending crisis that overcrowding threatened to bring about, correctional administrators turned to supermax isolated confinement because they perceived themselves to have few alternatives. However, in addition to the substantial psychological risks that they create for prisoners, the promise of supermax—as a last ditch, “stop gap” measure designed to contain the “worst of the worst”—has always exceeded their actual accomplishments.
Thus, as we have noted, long-term solitary confinement places prisoners at grave risk of psychological harm without reliably producing any tangible benefits in return. There is no hard evidence that supermaximum security facilities actually ever reliably reduced system-wide prison violence or enhanced public safety. Fears that a significant reduction in the supermax population or the outright closure of a facility will result in heightened security threats and prison violence have not been born out by experience. In fact, as the example cited above makes clear, recent experience in Mississippi found exactly the opposite—that a drastic reduction in the supermax population was followed by a reduction in prison misconduct and violence.
As prison populations slowly decline, and the nation’s correctional system re-dedicates itself to program-oriented approaches to positive prisoner change, the resources expended on long-term solitary confinement should be redirected to more cost-effective solutions. In Mississippi and elsewhere, supermax prisons are beginning to be seen as an expensive anachronism. We agree with the Governor that it is an anachronism that Illinois should do without.
Thank you for considering our comments.
Stuart Grassian, M.D., Clinical Faculty, Harvard Medical School, 1974 through 2002
Craig Haney, Ph.D., J.D., Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz
Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P., Institute Professor, The Wright Institute
 Erica Goode, Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, New York Times, March 10, 2012 [available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html?pagewanted=all]
 Haney, C., and Lynch, M., Regulating Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement, 23 New York University Review of Law and Social Change 477-570 (1997); Haney, C., Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 Crime & Delinquency 124 (2003); Cloyes, K., Lovell, D., Allen, D., & Rhodes, L., Assessment of Psychosocial Impairment in a Supermaximum Security Unit Sample, 33 Criminal Justice and Behavior 760-781 (2006).
 For example, see: Lovell, D., Johnson, L., & Cain, K., Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State, 53 Crime & Delinquency 633-656 (2007); Mears, D., & Bales, W., Supermax Incarceration and Recidivism, 47 Criminology 1131 (2009).
 Briggs, C., Sundt, J., & Castellano, T., The Effect of Supermaximum Security Prisons on Aggregate Levels of Institutional Violence, 41 Criminology 1341-1376 (2003).
 See, for example: Haney, C., Banks, C., and Zimbardo, P., Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (1973); and Haney, C., Reforming Punishment: Psychological Limits to the Pains of Imprisonment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books (2006).
 Described in detail in Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, supra note 2.
 Stuart Grassian, Psychopathological Effects of Solitary Confinement, 140 American Journal of Psychiatry 1450-1454 (1983). See also, Stuart Grassian and Friedman, N., Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement, 8 International Journal of Law and Psychiatry 49-65 (1986).
 For example, see: T. Kupers, Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (1999).
 See T. Kupers, T. Dronet et al, Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs, 36 Criminal Justice and Behavior 1037-1050, October, 2009, attached.