Adam Brulotte spent four months in solitary confinement for starting a riot on his cell block. He struggled to find a sense of normalcy after he was released and was arrested again.

Does Solitary Confinement Make Inmates More Likely To Reoffend?

April 18, 2017
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

As a teenager, Adam Brulotte relished the attention he received from getting into fights at parties. When he was 18 years old, he was arrested for burglary and aggravated assault after punching a man and breaking his jaw in seven places.

Brulotte arrived in Maine State Prison in 2012 to serve a two year sentence for violating his probation.

There, he was sent to solitary confinement for starting a riot on his cell block. During the approximately four months he spent in isolation, Brulotte cut himself, flooded his cell with toilet water and pushed feces under his door. Each incident earned him more time in solitary confinement.

Once he was released, Brulotte tried to find a sense of normalcy. He started dating, got a job at a local convenience store but soon ended up back in jail for driving without a license, an assault and failing to pay court fines.

“It leaves a scar on you that you won’t forget and you can’t heal … you get flashbacks and anxiety,” he said of solitary.

Like tens of thousands of inmates who spend time in solitary confinement, Brulotte struggled to adjust to life after prison.

Researchers have extensively documented the sometimes serious psychological trauma that inmates can suffer in solitary confinement.

However, less attention has been paid to the effects of solitary confinement and recidivism — the likelihood that a former inmate will commit a new crime.

Across the nation, 68 percent of all people are rearrested within three years of leaving prison, according to studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Supporters of solitary confinement have speculated that the harsh conditions — which often involve spending 23 hours a day in a small cell — may deter inmates from committing more crimes in the future and lead to a lower rate of recidivism.

Data from correctional facilities in a handful of states reveal a different story. Statistics show that inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend than those who serve their sentence in a prison’s general population.

Forty-nine percent of all inmates released from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2006 were rearrested within three years, according to data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. The recidivism rate for inmates who were released directly from solitary confinement that same year was significantly higher, at 61 percent.

Data from Connecticut in 2001 revealed that 66 percent of regular inmates were rearrested within three years, compared to a staggering 92 percent of inmates who were kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary problems or violent behavior.

Members of the Connecticut general assembly who commissioned the report, wrote that the high rate of recidivism among inmates who spend time in solitary confinement is “not surprising” and that the primary aim of solitary confinement was “management of the inmate’s behavior while in prison and not rehabilitation.”

These numbers, however, do not show a causal relationship between time spent in solitary confinement and the likelihood that an inmate will return to crime.

Inmates who end up in solitary confinement for breaking a rule in prison may also be predisposed to commit more crimes.

Two studies have attempted to isolate the relationship between solitary confinement and recidivism by comparing the outcome of inmates in maximum security or “super-max” prisons, where all inmates are kept in solitary confinement, with similar prisoners where inmates are not kept in isolation.

David Lovell, a former professor at the University of Washington, studied recidivism by matching 200 prisoners in super-max facilities in Washington state with inmates serving time in a regular prison setting. The inmates were grouped according to eight characteristics that predict recidivism, including age and criminal history.

Lovell’s study, published in 2007, found that prisoners who were released directly from super-max prisons into the community “committed new felonies sooner and at higher rates” than prisoners who were not isolated. The median time it took for inmates released directly from solitary to commit a new felony was 12 months, compared to 27 months for inmates who were never isolated or spent time in a general population after a stint in solitary confinement.

“The main thing that we did establish in the study was that being released directly from solitary confinement to the streets is a bad thing, that it increases the likelihood of people who are already fairly likely to fail in the community … will fail again and fail rapidly,” Lovell said.

Sara Sullivan, a project manager for the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, which works with corrections agencies around the country to assess and reduce their use of solitary, explained that inmates who are kept in isolation up until their release date may fare poorly because they lack  access to services that help prisoners transition back into the community.

“Not only are they leaving into the community from the most restrictive setting possible, they are also not necessarily receiving any programming or services that prepare them for that release,” she said.

As corrections departments across the country become increasingly aware of the detrimental effects of releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement, some have introduced special programs to help inmates transition to a general population before leaving prison. Maine State Prison, for example, has begun moving inmates from solitary confinement to a  “structured living unit” where they are required to take classes on behavior change and anger management.

Another study from Florida found that prisoners who were kept in solitary confinement were more likely to recommit a violent crime.

Daniel Mears, a criminology professor at Florida State University who co-authored the study, matched 1,247 prisoners who spent more than 90 days in solitary confinement with inmates in the general population with similar characteristics like age, sex, race and prior record.

The study found that 24.2 percent of inmates held in solitary confinement committed a violent crime three years after they were released compared to 20.5 percent of inmates who were not kept isolated.

Mears cautioned against using these findings to draw conclusions about solitary confinement around the nation as the conditions that inmates encounter vary greatly from state to state.

“We shouldn’t probably expect solitary to have some absolute effect,” Mears said, adding that the “effects are going to depend greatly on how inmates are placed in there, how long they are in there, what kind of services they got while they were in there.”

States that keep inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time without services such as education programs, work training and transition planning are likely to see higher rates of recidivism, Mears added.

Despite the limited size and scope of studies on how solitary confinement influences recidivism, one thing that is clear, according to Sullivan, is that neither study demonstrates that prisoners have “better outcomes” after spending time in isolation.

What is clear, experts say, is that spending time in solitary confinement can have a debilitating effect on inmates’ mental health.

Dr. Craig Haney, a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of isolation, found that inmates who spent more than 10 days in isolation experienced symptoms like uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, chronic depression and suicidal thoughts. In a recent report, psychiatrist Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute identified symptoms like anxiety, heightened suspicion, difficulty concentrating and a tendency to resort to abusing drugs and alcohol.

Brulotte deteriorated in the months that he spent confined to his cell.

“My mental health diminished,” he said. “Slowly but surely, it would to anybody.”

Once Brulotte was released from prison, he felt paranoid. He bought a tent and spent six months camping in the woods with his cousin who he called his “cellie” or cell mate.

“It just makes you totally relaxed sitting out there — don’t have to answer to anybody,” he said.

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