How Solitary Confinement Destroys Women
The rate of female incarceration is increasing rapidly, mostly for crimes driven by poverty and abuse. Then solitary confinement compounds the trauma.
“I always felt unsafe is solitary,” said 53-year-old Jacqueline Craig, who was incarcerated at age 16 for a drug offense and went on to spend 20 years of her life in prison, roughly six or seven of those in “the hole,” or solitary confinement. “I had to put on this bad-ass persona. I got more confrontational and ended up with more and more time in solitary.”
Women make up 7 percent of the 2.4 million people in prison in the United States. But despite this relatively small percentage, the rate of incarceration for women is growing faster than any other demographic. Recent scrutiny in an ACLU report released last month, “Worse Than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States,” posits that women are affected by solitary confinement—what typically amount to 22 to 23 hours alone in a cell the size of a large bathroom for weeks, months or years at a time—in distinct and often uniquely harmful ways.
“Women are put in the hole for small things,” said Craig, who now works as a supervisor at a domestic violence safe house in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes there’s a fight or something, but it can be for something stupid, like stealing a tomato from the kitchen, or having two blankets instead of one.”
According to the ACLU, the number of children with a mother in prison doubled. “My son was about 2 the first time I was put in solitary,” Craig said. “As a mother it effected my relationship with him in a bad way—you’re not able to call, you can write but it will take at least a week to get there, if they get it. I didn’t want my children to see me in handcuffs and shackles. Your children forget you, that’s a hurtin’ feeling.”
The vast majority of women in prison, like Craig, are nonviolent offenders who pose a very low security risk. Poverty is the dominant reason women commit crime, whether it’s sex work, welfare fraud, or drug offenses. For many women, these are crimes of survival. In 2004, more than 90 percent of imprisoned women reported annual incomes of less then $10,000 before their imprisonment, and most hadn’t completed high school. When women do commit violent crimes, it’s typically to defend themselves against an abuser. In addition, as many as 90 percent of female prisoners are rape, domestic violence and/or survivors of other trauma; many are mentally ill and even more are the primary caretakers of young children that depend on them.
“When a prisoner is in solitary, visits are more likely to take place through video conferencing, where the mother and child are in separate buildings,” said Gail Smith from CLAIM, an organization in Chicago that provides legal aid to prisoners on family law issues. “This is a terrible thing to do to a child, to have them travel three or four hours to see their mom and not even be able to hug her.”
If your child is in foster care, the situation can be ever more dire. “Up to 20 percent of women in prison have children in foster homes,” Smith said. “These women are required to demonstrate ‘reasonable progress’ in order to prevent that child from being permanently taken away from them. This includes drug treatment, anger-management, parenting classes and survivor groups, all of which they are barred from while in solitary. Everything is at stake…they may never be able to see their children again.”
Incarcerated women are twice as likely to be rape survivors than women in general, and abuse often continues in prison. “There’s a causal development for many women prisoners between being separated from their children—past trauma, depression and suicide,” said Terry Kupers, a California psychiatrist who focuses on the effects of prolonged isolation on prisoners. “There’s a general rule in psychology that men get angry and women get depressed; this principle is taken to its extremity in solitary.”
When a woman reports being raped by a guard or another inmate, she is immediately placed in solitary confinement. This is ostensibly for her protection, but critics say it is in fact retaliation, designed to discourage women from reporting abuse in the first place. While in solitary, women are regularly supervised by male guards. They are watched while showering, changing their clothes and even using the toilet, a loss of privacy and bodily autonomy that can often be re-traumatizing. Cut off from lawyers and family, and isolated from the general prison population, women in solitary are often at even greater risk of being sexual assaulted by staff with total impunity.
According to the ACLU, 75 percent of incarcerated women have mental illness, an even higher percentage than their male counterparts. Sensory deprivation, the absence of human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological debilitation, even in healthy, well-functioning adults—while people with mental illness more rapidly deteriorate. “People with a history of trauma and mental illness tend to be emotionally labile,” Kupers added. “They have more ups and down emotionally. Eighty percent of incarcerated women have been sexually or physically abused, so the emotions that everyone has in solitary—anger, depression, anxiety, fear and paranoia—are going to be much, much stronger for them. In isolation, these emotions will magnify and just keep reverberating with no one to talk to.”
Placing women with mental illness in solitary confinement can amount to punishment for behavior beyond their control. “Women with mental illness have a much harder time conforming their behavior to staff expectations,” Smith said. “I know of a women thrown into solitary for ‘reckless eyeballing,’ which means she gave an officer a exasperated look. Another woman was pregnant and struggling with mental illness. She had just gotten back from the hospital the night before and was completely exhausted. When the officer insisted she get up early for breakfast, the woman refused. The officer shook her, insisting she get up. When the women pushed back she ended up in solitary, where she had zero access to even basic prenatal care.”
Widespread criticism of solitary confinement has led to congressional hearings in recent years and forced the Bureau of Prisons to embark on its first-ever internal review of the practice. In addition, new legislation was recently passed in New York and Colorado, limiting the use of isolation among some of the most vulnerable prison populations—juveniles and the mentally ill.
Though critics largely see these changes as positive, many feel they don’t go nearly far enough. “In order to become more healthy, not just women, juveniles or the mentally ill but all prisoners need greater freedom to make new and better choices,” Smith said. “Stuck in a cell by yourself 23 hours a day, this simply isn’t possible.”