Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

Reading about suicide in solitary confinement

Can circumstances drive someone to suicide? One issue that deserves far more exposure is that of suicide and solitary confinement in prisons. The New York Times has a new story about a number of states moving to cut the number of prisoners in solitary, not only because the practice is more expensive but because of the effects on prisoners: “Studies suggest that the rigid control, absence of normal human interaction and lack of stimulation imposed by prolonged isolation can cause a wide range of psychological symptoms including insomnia, withdrawal, rage and aggression, depression, hallucinations and thoughts of suicide, even in prisoners who are mentally healthy to begin with.” It’s easy enough to feel isolated in the normal world. Imagine being locked up alone 23 hours a day and being fed through a slot in the door.

The story says at least 25,000 prisoners in the U.S. still remain in solitary confinement, perhaps thousands more. There is no national system to track them. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said solitary confinement can amount to torture and singled out the U.S. _ where the modern practice of solitary confinement began in the early 1800s _ for its widespread use. His report last year explores some of the psychological effects.

One especially persistent reporter on this issue has been Mary Beth Pfeiffer with The Poughkeepsie Journal in New York, who has told the stories of people like Carlos Diaz, who hung himself after spending 10 years in what’s called “the Box,” and Jesse McCann, who also hung himself after being placed in solitary _ at age 17.

The ACLU’s Stop Solitary project has links to studies on the psychological effects, including suicide, and Solitary Watch has other resources.

In what is no longer a surprise, at least for me, there appear to be no good statistics _ published, anyway _ on the number of suicides in solitary confinement across the U.S.

Suicide statistics in general are amazingly murky. That doesn’t help in bringing the issue out of the shadows.


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