Mental Health Disparities in Solitary Confinement

July 23, 2022

Harsh prison conditions have been widely examined for their effects on the mental health of incarcerated people, but few studies have examined whether mental health status exposes individuals to harsh treatment in the penal system. 

Analyzing a large administrative data set showing admissions to solitary confinement in state prison, we find high rates of punitive isolation among those with serious mental illness. Disparities by mental health status result from the cumulative effects of prison misconduct charges and disciplinary hearings. We estimate that those with serious mental illness spend three times longer in solitary confinement than similar incarcerated people with no mental health problems. The evidence suggests the stigma of dangerousness follows people into prison, and the criminalization of mental illness accompanies greater severity of incarceration.

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