From the February 2013 PNL #821
by Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre
In March 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a near-total ban on solitary confinement. Juan Mendez stated that “solitary confinement itself can amount to … torture as defined in Article 1 of the Convention against Torture.” The cited article defines torture as “… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” Mendez contends that after 15 days some psychological effects resulting from solitary confinement (also called isolation or segregation) are irreversible.
Mendez also specifically condemned US reliance on the practice, which is utilized in all sectors of the US detention system. From immigration detention centers to psychiatric institutions, military prisons to even juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement is a standard feature of the imprisoned landscape. And the nation’s penal system is no exception.
There are 45 “super-max” prisons in the US. A super-max is a prison facility wholly devoted to holding inmates in solitary confinement. 44 of these are state-run and the lone federal super-max is in Florence, CO. In 2000, the US Department of Justice estimated that an average of 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement at any one time.
Solitary in NYS
NYS is the home of two super-max prisons, Southport in Chemung County (789 beds) and Upstate in Franklin County (1,040 beds). Additionally, there are around 3,000 Special Housing Unit (SHU) beds dispersed among 37 other prisons in New York. A 2012 snapshot of the solitary confinement population found 402 inmates under 20 years old, 83 of them 18 or younger. 86% of the prisoners at Southport and Upstate are Black or Latino. Many have been diagnosed with mental illness before or after their arrival in isolation. LGBTQ prisoners are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory isolation across the detention spectrum.
[24 hours in solitary]
Inmates in solitary are permitted one hour per day of
“recreation” in an outdoor cage. Image: NYCLU & Amelia
Inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a small cell alone or in close quarters with one other person (a condition given the conflicted name “double solitary”). One hour per day is allowed for “outdoor recreation.” Prisoners may go in handcuffs to a caged area smaller even than their cell, where other inmates can be heard but not seen. Some inmates reported to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that they declined recreation to avoid hearing the screams of other solitary inmates in the recreation cell.
Prisoners receive no training, work, or rehabilitation services and report insufficient access to medical and psychological care while in solitary confinement. No transitional services are available for those in solitary, even when inmates will be directly released from isolation. Despite the lack of services, SHUs and super-maxes are expensive to staff. NYS spends about $76 million each year to staff segregation units.
How does an inmate get to solitary?
Roughly 90% of placements in isolation are for disciplinary reasons, though solitary confinement can also be imposed if the inmate is perceived to be vulnerable or a threat to prison safety. The punitive system in NYS prisons allows each class of violation to be rated at varying levels of severity, granting corrections officials (COs) wide discretion as to the severity of the punishment. In fact every single rule violation in NYS prisons has the potential to be met with a solitary confinement sentence.
There is no limit to the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement. Once in isolation, an inmate’s sentence in the SHU can be extended to punish subsequent rule infractions. If the solitary sentence exceeds the remainder of the entire sentence, COs are authorized to enforce further punishment through deprivation of haircuts, clothing, recreation, and even nutritional food.
It is well documented that prolonged solitary confinement often leads to mental illness in previously healthy individuals and almost always exacerbates mental illness where it already exists. Inmates in isolation have higher rates of suicide and self-harm. COs also report adverse effects from working in such tension including depression, alcoholism and family problems.
The question remains why solitary confinement is so heavily relied upon in the US despite its costliness compared to conventional prisons, its negative effects on inmates and COs, and its ineffectiveness in reforming criminals. How did we get to where we are today?
In 1890, the US Supreme Court concluded that “solitary confinement left prisoners in a semi-fatuous condition.” The practice was virtually abandoned in the US for nearly 90 years. Then, in 1983 a riot in a federal prison in Marion, IL prompted a state of emergency and permanent solitary lockdown for all inmates that lasted 23 years. By 1991, over 35 states had built or repurposed facilities to emulate the conditions at Marion. Between 1995 and 2000, the total US prison population grew by 28%; the population in isolation grew 40%. By 2000, the Justice Department estimated there were 80,000 prisoners being held in solitary at any one time in the US. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons claims the real number is much higher.
There is a clear connection between the invented Drug War and the resurgence of solitary confinement as an acceptable form of punishment. The NYCLU reports that the 346% increase in the prison population between 1973 and 1993 (correlated with vastly increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders) stressed the prison system with overcrowding that led to unprecedented management and control problems. Prisons responded to this stress by putting inmates in isolation.
Increased dependence on solitary confinement also mirrored a larger trend in the penal system toward punishment as opposed to rehabilitation. Just as policymakers waxed poetic about how they were “cracking down” on “hardened criminals”—language intended to make racist laws palatable to the public, as Michelle Alexander argues in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow—prison officials welcomed the construction of isolation units as proof of how “tough” their institutions were.
We are told that isolation is reserved for the “worst of the worst”—the most dangerous individuals in the prison population. Even the name of the solitary confinement prison—“super-max”—supports the notion that an extreme level of security is required to handle an extreme level of danger. But how can that be true if any violation can be punished with isolation? The NYCLU found that five out of six punitive isolation sentences are handed down for nonviolent rule infractions. The “worst of the worst” myth is simply not true.
Profit is the bottom line
The need for solitary confinement is a myth that supports a profit-driven prison system. Research shows that people released directly from solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend (and end up back in prison) than comparable general population prisoners. These crimes are also more likely to be violent and therefore garner a longer prison sentence.
This state of affairs is tragic, but it’s not surprising. The US prison system locks people up with no human contact and no meaningful work, denies them access to mental health care, and then releases them with no transitional programming whatsoever. The only beneficiary in this warped system is a prison system that profits from holding more inmates.
New Yorkers, our task is clear. We must stop torturing our fellow New Yorkers. We must reject the punitive, profit-driven imprisonment culture, and we must end the racist Drug War.
-National Religious Campaign Against Torture – www.nrcat.org; also powerpoint presentation in Columbus, GA in November 2012; also their film, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard.” SPC owns a DVD copy of this film. Contact Amelia to watch or organize a viewing.
-“Boxed In,” published by NYCLU, 2012, http://www.boxedinny.org/report/
– NYT Mar 10 2012 “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/us/rethinking-solitary-confinement.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
-“Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigrant Detention,” published by the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigration Justice Center & Physicians for Human Rights, 2012, http://www.immigrantjustice.org/publications/report-invisible-isolation-use-segregation-and-solitary-confinement-immigration-detenti#.UPHRXPLDkm8
-The Passion of Bradley Manning, Chase Madar, 2012.
-The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2010.
Amelia’s education in prison justice was catalyzed by the tragic murder of Troy Anthony Davis on September 21, 2011. Thanks also to the inmate who wrote to the PNL recommending NYCLU’s report “Boxed In.”