Wright Institute Professor’s Book Highlights Horrors of, Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

Over the course of decades researching the effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates, Professor Emeritus Terry Kupers, M.D. has amassed hundreds of anecdotes that illuminate the ways in which isolation causes disturbing patterns in relatively stable people and exacerbates symptoms of mental illness in those with histories of trauma and psychological problems. One such story was that of a woman he met in an East Coast prison who had recently been moved out of a secure housing unit (SHU), or solitary confinement.

“She was extremely anxious, and she told me that as a child her mother had locked her in a dark closet for hours or even days to punish her and was physically and verbally abusive,” Kupers said. “She eventually went to prison and to solitary, which triggered flashbacks, or experiences of reliving her abuse as a child.”

According to Kupers, for those with a history of mental illness these symptoms—which include very high anxiety, thinking disorders such as paranoia, problems with memory and concentration, compulsive behavior and suicidality—become much worse and significantly more intractable as a result of time spent in solitary confinement. Kupers has termed these often-chronic symptoms “the decimation of life skills.”

“I think society needs to be very careful that what we do to people in prison makes people more likely to succeed going straight when they get out, rather than less likely,” Kupers said. “And solitary confinement destroys people so that they become more likely to return to substance abuse when they get out and to fall on their face and fail.”

This year Kupers published The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It, which expounds upon the ways in which solitary confinement is detrimental to prison inmates’ long-term psychological health, as well as proposing alternative solutions he believes would be better for inmates and society as a whole.

“Until the beginning of this presidential administration, I believe we were moving toward getting rid of solitary confinement, so I focused the book on what we could be doing instead,” Kupers said, citing that Maine, New York and Illinois have passed new laws to reduce solitary confinement. “Approaches we have found to work better include providing adequate mental health treatment, rehabilitation programs, reforming sentencing so that people spend less time in prison and prisons become less over-crowded, and implementing substance-abuse treatment programs as an alternative to prison.”

In addition to his work as a researcher, speaker and teacher at the Wright Institute, Kupers spends much of his time testifying as an expert witness in court cases related to prison reform, and solitary confinement in particular.

“We must not ever forget to be clinicians to society,” he said. “We have to think not just about what individual factors cause a person to be contained but also what is going on socially that is having a detrimental effect on the public mental health,” he said, referencing systemic issues such as racism and poverty.

For rising clinicians who want to have similar careers as psychologists and activists, Kupers suggests building up an expertise in the clinical situations of inmates, so that the court will benefit from their testimony.

“Then, while I am giving that testimony related to psychological symptomology, I can give my larger opinions on solitary confinement,” he said. “I believe that we as psychiatrists and psychologists need to be interested in social issues. It happens to be the case that many people with mental illness end up in the prisons and the criminal justice system, so we—as experts on mental illness—should be available to provide input on how that system serves both inmates and society as a whole.”

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