By Alan Prendergast, Tuesday, Jun. 8 2010
The release of a twelve-month study about the mental effects of solitary confinement at Colorado's supermax is still weeks away.
But preliminary results leaked from the report -- which suggest state prisoners suffer little, if any, psychological impact from even long-term stay in isolation cells -- is already stirring outrage among prison activists and civil liberties attorneys.
A National Geographic special on solitary confinement that aired in April focused on life at the Colorado State Penitentiary, where inmates are housed in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. The program mentioned that the study's preliminary findings indicated little effect on inmates' mental health from their confinement.
That tidbit, which flies in the face of much of the scientific, peer-reviewed literature on the effects of solitary, has activists steeling themselves for the worst when the report is officially unveiled next month. The study and this fall's expected opening of a second supermax, known as CSP 2, were hot topics at Tuesday's American Civil Liberties Union talk by University of Denver law professor Laura Rovner.
Rovner, who's involved in lawsuits challenging conditions of solitary confinement faced by 27-year federal lockdown champion Thomas Silverstein and mentally ill CSP inmate Troy Anderson, noted that the evidence of psychological deterioration in solitary is compelling -- but that hasn't deterred state and federal prison authorities from building more supermaxes.
"There are more people in supermaxes, so it doesn't seem as shocking as it once did," she said.
Several audience members, including a smattering of attorneys, commented on the upcoming report, which some suspect is designed to help pave the way for the opening of CSP 2 by minimizing the degree to which solitary may encourage paranoia, rage and suicide. A few questioned the methodology of the state's research, which (at least as glimpsed in scenes from the NG special, which can be found here) seemed to rely on self-reporting from inmates desperate to get out of CSP. "Of course they're going to say they're okay," one noted.
Rovner agreed. She recalled one supermax inmate she had interviewed who kept insisting he was doing just fine, despite a nasty wound. "It turned out he'd been trying to dig the FBI chip out of his head," she said.
A summary of the report is expected to be presented to a state task force on prison mental health issues in mid-July.