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Isolated confinement and mental illness [Letter]

Thanks for your recent editorial highlighting attempts by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maryland and our partner organizations to pass legislation in this year's General Assembly that would require an independent investigation of the use of isolated confinement in the state's prisons ("Isolated confinement," March 31).

NAMI Maryland is concerned about the extensive use of isolated confinement and other forms of administrative segregation in both adult and juvenile state correctional facilities. A significant percentage of incarcerated individuals suffer from serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Placing inmates in segregated units exposes them to extreme isolation and sensory deprivation. Inmates can spend 23 to 24 hours a day in small cells with little or no social contact.

There are many reasons for the excessive placement of mentally ill inmates in isolated confinement. For example, their psychiatric symptoms may be so severe that they are unable to function in the general prison population. But long-term isolation also can actually worsen psychiatric symptoms and decrease an inmate's chances of recovery and successful community reentry.

Inmates with mental illnesses should receive psychiatric treatment and support in prison because it is right and because it costs our society less in the long run. In addition, some inmates with mental illness will benefit from segregated units where specialized treatment services are available to help them return to the general prison population.

Maryland has done some excellent work in this area. But we do not know the complete picture. Isolated confinement is expensive and certainly does not improve the chances that inmates will be productive, tax-paying citizens when they reenter society.

Reducing the use of isolated confinement and improving mental health treatment saves the state money and improves public safety. We hope that next year the General Assembly will pass legislation that takes the first step toward giving us a better understanding of the scope and impact of isolated confinement in the state's prisons.

Kate Farinholt

The writer is executive director of NAMI Maryland.

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