The Psychology of Solitary with Terry Kupers


Our guest this week is Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who, aside from his general practice, has spent a lot of time working with prisoners in solitary confinement. Terry walks us through the effects of complete isolation upon the mind, from anxiety and depression to issues with memory and anger management. In the process we consider the shortcomings of the American prison, education and social care systems – but also how coping techniques employed by these prisoners might help us deal with the social distancing measures in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Scary Statistics

Studies of prisoner welfare in segregation have produced some harrowing statistics. 50% of all successful suicides in prison are committed by the 3-7% of prisoners in solitary confinement – a fact Terry attributes to the complete absence of any meaningful relationships within confinement.

All the prisoners in solitary confinement are damaged. People who have a mental illness, for instance, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depressive disorder – their mental illness is exacerbated.

A Never-Ending Circle

Up to 85% of prisoners enter solitary confinement for minor infractions, but it is incredibly easy to get stuck there for many years. An initial 6 month sentence can very quickly develop into a decade or more. Can you imagine? That’s 10 years in the same 8 x 10ft space, with almost no personal interaction, and in many cases not even a TV or radio.

The Attribution Error

African Americans make up 45% of male prisoners in solitary confinement, and 40% of the male prison population as a whole. Latinx and Native Americans are also severely over-represented. Certain political circles falsely attribute this to some inherent characteristic of theirs – Terry believes it is instead the widespread systemic racism and failure of our social systems that cause this.

Trauma In Prisons

Those who end up in prison often have a background of severe trauma, and as a result there are very high rates of mental illness. You may have heard the statistic that 1 in 4 of us will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in our lives. In prisons, that’s just over 1 in 3 – not considering that many who need mental health care may not have access to it, before or during incarceration. Sadly, the prison environment in itself can be a new source of trauma, particularly if they are placed in solitary confinement. 

Trauma is one of the most pervasive background factors in the prison system. Prisoners as a group are probably the most traumatized group of people that I know of.

What Can We Learn? 

We can’t compare solitary confinement to the lockdown measures in place because of COVID-19. That being said, shelter-in-place is still a form of isolation, and Terry says we can learn from prisoners’ coping mechanisms to maintain a sense of normality in these very strange times. Building a routine is particularly important to prisoners. Solitary confinement cells might not even have a way to tell the time or date. By keeping some sort of schedule, even if it doesn’t look the same as pre-corona life, we too can regulate our body clocks and preserve our mental and physical health.

You have to really work out alternative ways to keep a focus when your usual methods for knowing where you are and what time it is are not available.

Finding Mutuality

Relationships in prison are often based on absolute domination. Guards possess absolute power and could lash out physically when challenged. Sadly, during this crisis many may find themselves locked in a similarly unbalanced or unsafe relationship. If you feel unsafe at home, or know someone else who does, know that there are many resources out there to help you – check out this list for more information.

Socio-Economic Discrepancies

Just as those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are more likely to spend time in prison, they are also disproportionately affected by this current crisis. Without any savings or disposable income, and now facing unemployment on an unprecedented scale, many will be left homeless or hungry. One particularly worrying study projects the poverty rate rising by as much as 50%.

Looking For A Brighter Future

The stats paint a gloomy picture to say the least – so can any good come out of this crisis? Terry certainly thinks so. Amongst all the doom and gloom, we have seen people go to great lengths to help those around them. The hope is that this compassion will last well beyond the pandemic. We might come out the other side with a much greater empathy not only for our neighbours, but for those stuck in our criminal justice system, those locked up at the border, or those struggling with mental health.

We have a shared problem, and a need to share the resources to get through this. I would hope that there is going to be a carryover of that sentiment once the crisis is over… We will have more empathy and be able to fix some of these unbelievable inequities


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