The U.N. defines 15 days of solitary confinement as torture. In NYS prisons and jails, 15 days is the minimum sentence, and most people spend several weeks to several years in solitary. It is the first punishment which is given by Correction Officers (COs) who interpret and enforce the several hundred rules, many of which are vague.
It has a devastating psychological effect which leads to increased recidivism for prisoners.
At any time, 8% of the prison population in NYS is in isolation. There are usually 1,000 (men, women, children) in isolation in Rikers, with (on average) another 3,500 upstate. Once in solitary. The rules become more stringent, and weeks are added on for, e.g., being slow in returning the food tray. The US prison system has the highest ratio of prisoners in the developed world. Since the early 1980s, the concept of ‘correction’, which incorporated the idea of rehabilitation, has changed to the idea of punishment, punishment which can often last a lifetime. In Super Housing Units (SHUs) the prisoner is shut in for 23 hours out of 24, or sometimes with one other person, and all privileges are cancelled. The hour of recreation is usually in what is called the ‘kennel’. A kind of dog run inside the building, and the prisoner is usually alone. The average size of the cell is 8’x9’, slightly larger if it is a two-person cell. When the prisoners leave their cell, they are heavily manacled and, if they receive a visit or have a medical visit, they are strip searched on return. A further punishment for anything that is not immediate obedience, is the NYS ‘restricted diet”, bread and vegetable matter blended into a solid loaf, with a wedge of raw cabbage, and water to drink.
The psychological effect of this is devastating. Hallucinations, schizophrenia, depression, anger, memory loss, paranoia are all common among the population in solitary. The longer a person is in this environment, the worse the effects. We treat animals better than this: keeping a medium sized dog in a kennel of proportionate size would be a felony.
There is a disproportionate number of Afro-Americans and Hispanics from cities in prison, while almost all the prisoners from New York City are sent upstate so the majority of COs are white, from small towns, which leads to polarized attitudes. The CO’s word is always believed over the prisoner’s.
The explosion of isolation has occurred in the past twenty or thirty years as the idea of rehabilitation was lost and prison is solely punishment, with very long sentences. Yet solitary confinement ended in the US at the end of the nineteenth century. The Supreme Court decision 1890 (In re Medley) said that it led to suicide and insanity, and that most people who suffered it did not recover mental acuity. In 2012, Colorado, Mississippi and Maine each substantially curtailed solitary confinement: none of the doomsday predictions by those in the system happened. Instead, violence has decreased, and the systems are saving money. Britain has the highest incarceration rate of the Western Europe, but in 2004 there were only 40 people in solitary out of a prison population of 750,000, each with an individualized program designed to encourage good behavior and social engagement. France, in the 19th century, regarded solitary confinement as a harsher punishment than the death penalty; it is rarely used today. Those American soldiers who suffered solitary confinement in Korea and Vietnam, like John McClain, are viewed as having suffered torture. And what we are doing in our prisons and jais, and are doing in Guantanamo, is also torture. Our prison system is the most inhumane in the developed world, and our use of solitary is unparalleled.
What are the solutions? In 2007, the NYS Legislature passed the SHU Exclusion Act. which provides changes of the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, but provides only 200 beds for the 4,500 prisoners in SHU. 50% of whom have significant mental issues. It applies to prisons, not to jails.
The HALT bill (S1623/A2500 2019-2020) proposes creative alternatives (Residential Rehabilitation Units) to isolation, severely limits use of isolation, bans special populations from it, and creates paths from the RRUs to the main population. Enacting these principles would cut the recidivism rate, reduce costs, and provide a saner and more humane system. Gov. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie blocked it from coming to the floor of both houses last year as there are more than enough legislators in both houses to pass it. Do contact your state senator and assembly person to press for this bill to be passed, and to prevent him from doing this again.
Richenda Kramer for the Granny Peace Brigade