Dr. Appelbaum urges American Psychiatric Association to oppose solitary confinement in prisons

January 27, 2016

Kenneth L. Appelbaum, MD, a correctional mental health expert at UMass Medical School, calls for the American Psychiatric Association and other mental health organizations to oppose solitary confinement in U.S. prisons in an editorial he wrote for the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

“Solitary confinement, which continues in widespread and excessive use in the United States, poses serious risks to the physical and mental health of all inmates,” Dr. Appelbaum wrote in the December 2015 edition of the journal. “It is time for the APA (American Psychiatric Association), along with all organizations devoted to mental health, to join the chorus opposed to all draconian practices of prolonged solitary confinement and for correctional systems to listen.”

Appelbaum is a clinical professor of psychiatry at UMass Medical School and director of correctional mental health policy and research at the Center for Health Policy and Research, a unit within UMass  Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division. He also is co-editor of the Oxford Textbook of Correctional Psychiatry, the first comprehensive resource on criminal justice mental health issues. Appelbaum and his co-editors, Robert L. Trestman, PhD, MD, of UConn Health Care, and Jeffrey L. Metzner, MD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, will receive the APA’s prestigious Manfred S. Guttmacher Award for their work on the textbook in May.

The number of inmates in prolonged and extreme isolation in the United States has increased dramatically in recent decades, Appelbaum wrote in the editorial, while many countries are putting fewer prisoners in extreme isolation.

Appelbaum reviewed the arguments for supporting solitary confinement, referred to as segregation in U.S. prisons. Those who support solitary confinement say it is needed for the safety of inmates and others, for behavioral change and as a punishment for infractions, Appelbaum wrote. He cited offenses resulting in solitary confinement in some states, including accessing social networking sites, failure to stand for a count, being out of place, refusing to participate in programs, talking disrespectfully to a correctional officer and failure to obey an order. An inmate who had made 35 posts to his Facebook page “received a cumulative sentence of more than 37 years in segregation, along with loss of telephone, visitation, and canteen privileges for the next 74 years,” Appelbaum wrote.

“The arguments for the safety benefits of solitary confinement do not pass muster, the potential for psychological and physiological harm is real, and the misery that can accompany the experience is well-known. The APA has led in the effort to restrict solitary confinement for inmates with serious mental illness, but it has not taken the same stance regarding other inmates,” Appelbaum wrote in the editorial.  


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