The Painful Death Of Solitary Confinement

A few days ago, an email came in from my friend, lawprof Ellen Yaroshefsky at Cardozo, with the first report from its Youth Justice Clinic. Among the many recommendations for dealing with youth incarcerated on Riker’s Island, foremost was the elimination of solitary confinement.

For an adult, long-term solitary confinement is torture.  For a child, it is an inexcusable outrage. In considering sources to support these contentions, there are too many, too solid, to select one.  If you feel compelled to demand support for the assertion, go Google it. There is plenty to read. In my view, the proposition that solitary confinement of children is inhumane requires no additional support.

The use of solitary confinement isn’t to protect the lives of corrections officers, but to teach prisoners who’s the boss.

There are about 3,800 state prisoners currently being held in “extreme isolation” cells, known as special housing units or S.H.U.s, according to the civil liberties group. The organization’s 2012 report, “Boxed In,” found that from 2007 through 2011, corrections officials issued such sentences about 68,000 times for disciplinary reasons. The most common infraction was failure to obey an order, which resulted in 35,000 such punishments, the data showed.

The average “extreme isolation” sentence was about five months, the report said, with nearly 2,800 sentences of a year or more.

These numbers are staggering. The lives of these prisoners are horrible.

Such prisoners are held in their cells for 23 hours a day, receive their meals through a slot in the cell door and are granted one hour of outdoor recreation in a “walled-in solitary pen,” the civil liberties group says.

Roughly half of such inmates are confined alone, while the other half are held with another prisoner in a space about the size of a parking spot, the report says.

“Double-celled prisoners experience the same isolation and idleness, withdrawal and anxiety, anger and depression as do prisoners living alone in the S.H.U.,” the report said. But such inmates also must “endure the constant, unabating presence of another man in their personal physical and mental space,” it added.

But even if you’re inclined to think that if they just behaved better, did as they were told, they wouldn’t have to suffer, it still isn’t necessarily so.

While disciplinary confinement makes up the vast majority of those placed in solitary, a small percentage of prisoners are placed there for administrative reasons or for protective custody.

Some are tortured for “administrative reasons,” and the most horrible is that to be protected from external harm, a prisoner is subjected to the torture of solitary.

The New York Times reports that it may be coming to an end, in a settlement in a suit by three prisoners against the State before SDNY Judge Shira Scheindlin.  According  to the report, the State of New York has agreed to the following:

New York State has agreed to sweeping reforms intended to curtail the widespread use of solitary confinement, including prohibiting its use in disciplining prisoners under 18.

State correction officials will also be prohibited from imposing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for inmates who are pregnant, and the punishment will be limited to 30 days for those who are developmentally disabled, the court filing says.

Youths would receive critical, additional accommodation:

Under the agreement, 16- and 17-year-old prisoners who are subjected to even the most restrictive form of disciplinary confinement must be given at least five hours of outdoor exercise and programming outside of their cells five days a week. The state must also set aside space at designated facilities to accommodate the minors who would normally be placed in solitary confinement.

These reforms are not only huge from the perspective of ending a legacy of outrageous harm to prisoners, but because New York, being one of the largest prison systems in the nation, will serve as a model for other states to end their use of solitary confinement as a quick and easy method of ridding themselves of prisoners who annoy the screws.

Naturally, the full support of the correctional officers union is not behind this settlement:

But the union representing state corrections officers, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, was more critical of the agreement.

“Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” a statement released by the union said. “Any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or lives in these institutions.”

Only in prison can one call torture the product of decades of evolution. The rest of us might be more inclined to call it expediency and a damn good way of showing prisoners how they better do as they’re told or suffer the consequences.  If only the Iron Maiden didn’t leave marks.

While the settlement doesn’t end solitary confinement completely, even for youth, it’s a significant advancement and, hopefully, will bring about the ultimate demise of the psychological torture of isolation.  That it still exists today, anywhere, for adults but particularly for children, is incomprehensible.  Hopefully, this is how the painful death of solitary confinement begins. Hopefully, its death is swift.

4 thoughts on “The Painful Death Of Solitary Confinement

    1. SHG Post author

      Yeah, that one stuck in my craw too. Nothing like taking the person most affected by torture and least capable of behaving in the manner the screws demand, and leaving them in the hole for a month. Because that’ll make ’em less developmentally disabled.

      1. spencer neal

        Now that I have retired from the practice of law, I have been looking for a new cause. I think that I will contact Ellen, an old friend of mine, to see what I can do.

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