Recent news that New York State has taking steps to end solitary confinement for juveniles and pregnant inmates is heartening, even as it points to the larger problems facing the US corrections system—including wrongful imprisonment, inhospitable and overcrowded correctional facilities, extreme sentencing guidelines. To some people, solitary confinement seems a just punishment and to others it is cruel and inhumane treatment. Here at Shiller Preyar, we tend toward the latter. Either way, it’s important to know what the key issues are in conversations about solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement typically means inmates are held alone in a cell that is located in a segregated section of the correctional facility for between 22 to 24 hours a day. Inmates can be put into solitary confinement as punishment for something they did in general population, as behavior modification, and for suspected gang alliances. At times, as was the case for transwoman CeCe McDonald, inmates are put into solitary because they are perceived as needing protection from other inmates.
Many have pointed to solitary confinement as inhumane and tortuous. Academics like Craig Haney have discussed the negative impact solitary confinement has on mental health. Damon Thibodeaux spent nearly 15 years in solitary confinement in Lousiana’s Angola Prison. He was exonerated and released in September of 2012. His testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee describes solitary confinement an isolated life rife with mental illness, physical illness that literally kills.
Others have pointed to solitary confinement as illegal. In 2012, inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison filed suit to end solitary confinement—in part in conversations with a United Nations report that likened use of solitary confinement in US prison to torture.
The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a case, Peoples vs. Fischer, calling for reformation of how solitary confinement is implemented. In their 2012 report, the NYCLU found the “average time spent in isolation was 150 days – five to 10 times longer than experts say is the maximum tolerable span – with some prisoners serving terms of years or even decades in isolation.”
In February of 2014, the New York State Department of Corrections agreed to terms that included immediate steps to remove juveniles and pregnant inmates from solitary conditions. Developmentally disabled inmates, however, will remain in the solitary confinement system, though their isolation times are limited to 30 hours.
There are many other people and organizations who are fighting against solitary confinement. Corrections officers in Texas have added their voices to the call to end solitary confinement in an open letter they published this past January. In it, they criticize the move toward solitary confinement of death row inmates and advocate the implementation of “tools that can manage positive behaviors” in inmates—for example, allowing the use of media devices as a reward for positive behaviors. They write, “lack of visual or audio stimulation result in increased psychological incidents and results in costly crisis management.” Interestingly, a large part of their argument rests on the need to properly train and compensate correction officers.
As of this week, lawmakers in Denver are working on a proposal to keep inmates with mental health issues out of solitary confinement. In Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin is among those calling for solitary confinement reformation.
Much of the calls to reform solitary confinement focus on juveniles, pregnant inmates, and the physically and mentally disabled. While it is important to protect those who often receive the short end of the stick within and beyond prison systems, it is also important to systematically reform solitary confinement for all prisoners. We will be curious to see how far solitary confinement reform issues extend into discussions of the overwhelmingly black and latino male prison population in the United States. While calls to reform help a great deal of prisoners, in what ways might lawmakers still think that presumably healthy men and women “need” solitary confinement?
What are your thoughts on calls to end solitary confinement?