New Report: 5 Ways Solitary Confinement is Especially Harmful to Women

More than 200,000 women are imprisoned in the U.S., and, like their male counterparts, they are increasingly subjected to the cruelly inhumane practice of solitary confinement. But while the devastating psychological effects of solitary have been studied on men, the punishment is uniquely damaging to women in different ways. Last week, the ACLU released its new report, entitled Worse Than Second-Class, about women prisoners held in solitary.


In the report, the ACLU explores five ways that the mostly invisible practice of solitary harms women:

1. Solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illness

While this is equally true of men, according to the ACLU, mental illness is more common among women prisoners than men. It estimates  that, "Nearly seventy-five percent of women in prison are diagnosed with mental illness—a much higher rate than for men in prison." In addition, the mentally ill are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, often because their illness causes behaviors deemed unacceptable that are beyond their control. 

2.Solitary confinement can re-traumatize victims of past abuse and can render incarcerated women more vulnerable to abuse by correctional officers

A majority of women in prison report being victims of abuse in the past. The isolation and absence of healthy stimulation or human contact is particularly damaging to this vulnerable population. In addition, many women in solitary are watched by male guards, including during their most private and intimate moments, which is traumatizing in and of itself to victims of past abuse, and makes them freshly vulnerable to being abused. Such abuse would be easy to hide as it occurs well out of sight of the general prison population.

3. Solitary confinement is sometimes used as retaliation against women who have reported sexual abuse or other harmful treatment while in prison.

"Again and again," the report states, "stories arise in which women who report rape and other abuse by corrections officers are sent to solitary confinement. Women who have been sexually abused by prison guards are thus faced with another painful dilemma, forced to decide between reporting the attack and risking retaliation, or not reporting it and risking further assault."

Once in solitary, an inmate can be observed 24/7 by her attacker, while she sleeps, dresses and uses the toilet. This retaliatory practice also has an obviously chilling effect on other inmates reporting sexual assaults.

The ACLU also found that solitary is used to retaliate for other kinds of complaints besides sexual abuse. "Carol Lester, a 73-year-old mother and grandmother, found herself in solitary confinement in a New Mexico prison for almost five weeks," the report states. "According to Lester and her attorneys, officials placed her in solitary confinement when she spoke out against her inadequate medical care."  

4. Solitary confinement can jeopardize the relationship between mother and child, harming children.

Children are the collateral damage when their mothers are placed in solitary, which usually means severe curtailment of visitation rights, phone calls and letters. Often, women in prison were their child's primary caretaker, so the child has already been traumatized by the mother's incarceration. Not getting to see or hug her inflicts further psychological damage on the child.

5. Solitary confinement of pregnant women is harmful and internationally condemned.

The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners explicitly forbids solitary confinement for pregnant women, which both jeopardizes their psychological health and makes it that much harder for them to access pre-natal healthcare. But the U.S. does not seem to think the rule applies here, so pregnant women are still placed in solitary.

The report makes recommendations, such as ending isolating vulnerable populations like the mentally ill, pregnant women and transgender prisoners. If solitary confinement is used at all, the report says, it should only be used for prisoners who pose a “current, continuing, and serious threat to their own safety or that of others."

And even for those supposedly dangerous prisoners, the rules regarding solitary should be made transparent and uniform, including the process by which a prisoner can earn her way out of this cruel confinement, the report urges.

Or, better still, just end the practice altogether.

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