Jail cells as big as some Manhattan apartments, with glass doors and plenty of natural light. Taking away recreation yard bonus time, as punishment. Meetings with victims of violent crimes. And days filled with educational programs and mental health counselling.
Those are among the alternatives to solitary confinement used at some jails and prisons across the country and around the world — leading local incarceration reform advocates to ask, why not here?
The call to strictly limit or end solitary confinment in New York exploded to the forefront of the criminal justice reform conversation following the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, insider a Rikers Island cell on June 7.
Many inmate advocates and medical experts argue the practice of “punitive segregation” should be banned, citing evidence it causes severe psychological harm, especially to younger detainees whose brains are not fully developed.
A growing chorus of critics, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, have said solitary amounts to torture. And the city’s Board of Correction is planning to consider new rules for isolation in local jails.
Both the board and the Commissioner of Correction, currently Cynthia Brann, have the power to set restrictions on the use of solitary confinement — and to eliminate it entirely if they choose.
“Imagine being stuck in an elevator for hours, let alone days, weeks, months, years or decades,” Roger Clark, an activist who spent years in solitary, told the oversight board in July.
“All day and night, people would bang on the doors and scream in agony.”
Rewarding Good Behavior
Prisons in those countries are vastly different: They have large open spaces and inmates are given loads of educational programming and counseling.
“People are busy. There’s tons less violence,” said Michael Jacobson, who served as city Department of Correction commissioner during the Giuliani administration.
In San Francisco, a program called The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project offers carefully designed full days of programming to detainees with a history of violence, examining the psychological and social roots of their behavior.
“When this program started, the correction officers said, ‘You’re going to have riots,’ and the correction officers were petitioning to get moved to other cell blocs because they thought this place was going to explode,” said Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has worked in prisons and studied them for five decades.
But violent incidents dropped dramatically among the participants, said Gilligan, who published a study on the RSVP program. Correction officers even began asking to come back to the unit because it had become the safest in the jail, he noted.
‘It’s a Total Failure’
Isolation as punishment only begets further violence, according to Gilligan.
“It’s a total failure. It’s self-defeating, counterproductive,” he said. “You put somebody in a position of social isolation and sensory deprivation, even mentally healthy people can start hallucinating and their thoughts go wild and they can become paranoid or suicidal or psychotic.”
Prison reform experts argue that rewarding good behavior by offering added time outside or during visits helps reduce violence. On the flip side, those boosted benefits can be yanked for inmates who act out.
“The main strategy is to move away from solitary and implement more sanctions that are proportional to the behavior,” said Sara Sullivan, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.
The city’s former top jail medical official is among those calling the elimination of the practice.
“Solitary is a practice that harms health and does not improve security or safety,” said Dr. Homer Venters, who oversaw medical care for city inmates while heading Correctional Health Services.
Inmate advocates are concerned that solitary confinement — and abuses of the practice — will be transported to the new jails set to be built as part of the shutdown Rikers plan. The new jails — planned for all the boroughs, except Staten Island — will all have space for solitary cells, according to the current design plan.
A Necessary Tool?
In Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders earlier this year shot down a measure that would have restricted solitary confinement use across the state. Cuomo instead agreed to make a series of administrative changes to limit 23-hour-a-day punishment.
Many jail and prison officials contend that solitary is a necessary tool to separate inmates who act out violently.
“There are humane ways to use it,” said Jacobson, who is now executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. “I would argue there are times for [other] people’s safety or their own safety they cannot be in a group setting.”
“But nobody should be in there for months or years,” he added. “That’s obviously needlessly cruel.”
The union representing city jail officers is vehemently against eliminating the punishment.
“Here’s the reality: if you don’t want punitive segregation, then give us an alternative, and what’s the alternative that’s going to keep the jails safe or safer?” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
He noted a naked inmate allegedly tried to sexually assault a female correction officer at Rikers earlier this month. The inmate, he said, has since been put in solitary.
“Where [else] do we put him?” Husamudeen asked.
Reducing Use in City
The de Blasio administration has drastically reduced use of solitary confinement in city jails over the past six years. In 2011, during the Bloomberg era, there were close to 1,000 people in so-called punitive segregation on any given day. There were 125 in punitive segregation on Wednesday, according to the city’s Board of Correction.
The city also in recent years has eliminated solitary for inmates under 22 and for people with “serious” mental illness. In addition, adult inmates can no longer spend more than 30 days in solitary at a stretch.
“We are committed to looking for ways to further reduce its use,” said Peter Thorne, a Correction Department spokesperson. “Now it is only turned to as a last resort to address violent acts against our officers, non-uniform staff or in response to violence committed by one detainee against another.”
Inmate advocates, citing Polanco’s death, argue that’s not enough. A federal lawsuit filed last week said Polanco, who suffered from schizophrenia and seizures, had rarely been out of her cell for more than two hours a day while in the unit.
In other parts of the country, a person can be placed in a solitary unit for a number of reasons, including punishment or protection. But in New York City, solitary confinement is almost exclusively punitive, after a 2010 court ruling found that segregation for reasons besides punishment and contagious disease violated the city’s “Minimum Standards,” a bill of rights for incarcerated people.
A Psychological Toll
All inmates must first be cleared by medical staff before they are put in solitary. Yet that creates a serious conflict, Venters said.
“It causes deep damage to the ethics of health staff and the ability of patients to trust them as providers of care,” he said.
Venters’ research in the city jail system has shown that African American and Hispanic inmates are more likely than whites to be placed in solitary. A 2014 study he directed found that detainees sent to solitary were nearly seven times more likely to try to hurt or kill themselves.
The mental harm of solitary confinement was highlighted by the Kalief Browder, who was arrested at age 16, in a case reported by The New Yorker. Browder, who spent three years on a stolen backpack charge that was later dropped, died by suicide in June 2015 — after being released. His family said he was severely hurt by his more than two years in solitary.
“It’s an abomination and it does lifelong damage to people,” said JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, a group that helps the formerly incarcerated.
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