Death sentence? Just a few days of solitary confinement increases post-prison risk of dying

ITHACA, N. Y. — We’ve all seen it depicted in countless movies and television shows. A prison inmate acts out of line or breaks a rule and is punished with a stay in solitary confinement. Most of us can only imagine what it’s really like; being completely isolated from other people and left with absolutely nothing to do to pass the time. That being said, the extra punishment isn’t supposed to be a death sentence. Yet, as it turns out, a recent study conducted at Cornell University finds that just a few days spent in solitary confinement can significantly increase an inmate’s risk of death after being released from prison.

The research team analyzed the Danish prison system, and discovered that 4.5% of former prison inmates who had spent some time in solitary confinement were dead within five years of being released. Most of those inmates had only been placed in isolation for less than a week. In comparison to mortality rates among released inmates who hadn’t spent any time in solitary confinement, that’s a 60% increase.

“That’s a significant increase in the risk of mortality,” comments study author Christopher Wildeman, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, in a release. “We think it’s a pretty substantial effect.”

The research team tracked every single Danish inmate (close to 14,000 people) who began and completed their prison sentence between 2006 and 2011. Among those prisoners, nearly 1,700 were placed in solitary confinement. The average stay in isolation was around nine days, but roughly half only spent five days, and another two-thirds were isolated for less than a week.

Wildeman believes prison wardens and guards should utilize alternative punishments when inmates act up, and only opt for solitary confinement when it is absolutely necessary. As far as other punishment options, he suggests loss of privileges, fines, or even extending an inmate’s sentence length.

“For somebody who is in disciplinary segregation for 72 hours because of a specific infraction, there’s almost always an alternative that a warden or guard could use that wouldn’t involve putting someone in solitary,” he says.

The study was incredibly thorough. Researchers had access to a wealth of information on the inmates, such as age, race, ethnicity, education levels, family and employment history, and prior infractions in the legal system.

Dates and causes of death were also confirmed by the Danish government. All of that information helped the research team determine that many of the solitary confinement inmates who passed away after being released were generally younger and had served longer prison sentences. The majority of these deaths were caused by unnatural circumstances (suicides, violence, accidents).

Wildeman admits that even he was shocked to see the noticeable connection between just a few days in solitary confinement and increased risk of death. Ultimately, he says more research is needed to flush out and comprehensively explain these findings.

The study is published in The Lancet Public Health.