More questions on solitary confinement and inmate mental health

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Last year, a pair of publications criticized the use of solitary confinement in New York's prisons. A report from the New York Civil Liberties Union and an article in The Nation said that officials' often impose the punishment arbitrarily and excessively.

A new article, published last week by ProPublica, questions state prisons' use of solitary confinement on inmates that may have mental health issues. The story sums up the problem this way:
A 2007 federal court order required New York to provide inmates with "serious" mental illness more treatment while in solitary. And a follow-up law enacted in 2011 all but bans such inmates from being put there altogether.

But something odd has happened: Since protections were first added, the number of inmates diagnosed with severe mental illness has dropped. The number of inmates diagnosed with "serious" mental illness is down 33 percent since 2007, compared to a 13 percent decrease in the state's prison population.

A larger portion of inmates flagged for mental issues are now being given more modest diagnoses, such as adjustment disorders or minor mood disorders.

The article goes on to say that it's not clear what's behind the drop in serious diagnoses, though the state tells ProPublica that the decrease is due to improvements in the screening process. The article also mentions research showing that the extreme isolation of solitary confinement can cause or worsen mental health problems in inmates.

The psychological effects of solitary confinement are really the issue here. When critics say the punishment is overused and often excessive, they're talking about the mental toll on inmates. In 2009, Atul Gawande wrote a fantastic piece for the New Yorker that compared long-term solitary confinement and torture. And somewhere in the middle of the article, he sharply puts the issue in perspective.

"If prolonged isolation is — as research and experience have confirmed for decades — so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?" Gawande wrote.


And New Yorkers need to ask whether this is the prison system we want for our state.

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