New prisons study confirms harmful impacts of solitary confinement, value of mental health treatment and care

A solitary cell in an NC prison. Image: Disability Rights NC

Advocates call for appropriations to fund essential reforms

In some ways, it seems kind of silly that we even had to conduct a study to confirm something so obvious, but in the modern world in which so many basic facts underlying public policy are constantly up for debate, new research conducted by the state prison system is welcome news. The finding: there’s a big payoff to providing treatment and care to incarcerated people with mental health disabilities. What’s more, the practice of using solitary confinement for such individuals is ineffective and harmful.

This is from a statement issued by a coalition of North Carolina mental health advocacy organizations, including Disability Rights NC, NAMI NC, the NC Psychiatric Association, the NC chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, and the NC Psychological Association:

…[the] study recently published in the American Journal of Preventative Health lays bare the harmful, too often deadly, effects of prison solitary confinement on people with mental health disabilities. The findings confirm what has been known for years – solitary confinement is harmful to people and results in life-long trauma, suicide and self-injurious behavior. According to the Study, care and treatment of people with mental illness in prison leads to safer prison environments for those who work and live in the prison as well as for our communities that will receive the more than 20,000 people who return every year. The Study confirms that care and treatment while in prison produce better outcomes for everyone.

The statement, which notes that advocates have been calling for years for such a study, also highlights the obvious conclusion that follows: the need for state lawmakers to appropriate funds to provide necessary services and end the barbaric practice of solitary confinement.

We advocated for the 2015 appropriation establishing Therapeutic Diversion Units in NC DPS after the tragic death of Mr. Michael Kerr, who died of dehydration while in full restraints in solitary confinement during a psychiatric crisis.

The Study confirms what has been known for years: our prisons will be safer and people will return to our communities healthier if prison mental health treatment is fully funded. “This study provides clear evidence that North Carolina should invest more in best practices like TDUs and funding behavioral health staff including social workers that result in better outcomes for North Carolinians,” said Valerie Arendt, Executive Direction of NASW-NC.

“We will continue to advocate for more funding for services and staff in North Carolina prisons, and urge the end of the dangerous and harmful practice of long-term solitary confinement,” said Susan H. Pollitt, Supervising Attorney with DRNC.


  • here to read the full press statement,
  • here to read a release from the Department of Public Safety,
  • here to explore the study, and
  • here to read powerful op-ed by Disability Rights NC attorney Luke Woollard that describes the human torture that is solitary confinement.
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