Isolated confinement

Effective method for behavior change or punishment for punishment’s sake?

Authored by: Terry A. Kupers

The Routledge Handbook of International Crime and Justice Studies

Print publication date:  August  2013
Online publication date:  August  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415781787
eBook ISBN: 9780203837146
Adobe ISBN: 9781136868504


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In the 1970s, I began testifying in class action lawsuits as a psychiatric expert witness regarding jail and prison conditions and the adequacy of correctional mental health services. The issues usually included jail and prison crowding, which constituted harsh conditions and violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The War on Drugs, increasingly harsh prison sentences, and other factors were causing the prison population to multiply geometrically. Meanwhile, with the “de-institutionalization” of state psychiatric hospitals and subsequent budget cuts in community mental health programs, a large number of individuals suffering from serious mental illness were finding their way into the prisons. In fact, while the prison population was multiplying geometrically in recent decades, the proportion of prisoners suffering from serious mental illness was also climbing. With crowding there were insufficient cells, so gymnasiums became impromptu dormitories, while four or six prisoners were crammed into cells built for one or two. Classes and rehabilitation programs did not expand to fill the need. It was known, from a robust literature on crowding, that massive crowding, especially with relative idleness, caused increased rates of violence, psychiatric breakdown and suicide in the facilities (Thornberry and Call 1983; Paulus et al. 1978). Meanwhile, there was a concerted effort on the part of conservative politicians to dismantle prison rehabilitation programs in the prisons. The cry was to “stop coddling criminals.” So there were a lot of idle prisoners, many suffering from serious mental illness, shoe-horned into small spaces, and the result was mayhem.

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