NYC takes first step to reducing solitary confinement

The New York City Correction Department will, beginning in July, stop its practice of punishing prisoners with mental illnesses for prison violations by locking them in solitary confinement.

Two hands on jail cell bars
Solitary Confinement Challenged

Rather than locking these prisoners in extreme isolation for 23 hours a day, a practice that United Nations has described as torture, the City will transfer these inmates to “an internal clinic where psychiatrics will administer treatment and medicine,” according to a New York Times article from May 14.

People with mental illnesses are vastly overrepresented in New York City’s jails, representing about a third of the total prison population locked in solitary confinement.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times that the city should eliminated prolonged sentences of solitary confinement for all inmates.

“The irony should not be lost on us that solitary confinement creates mental illness itself,” she said, referring to what she said were the devastating psychological effects of being kept in extreme isolation.

New York City’s prison population in solitary confinement represents just a portion of the 4,500 inmates placed in this manner on any given day in the state’s prison system. On December 6, the NYCLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over its solitary confinement practices in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“The purpose of extreme isolation is the absolute deprivation of meaningful human interaction and mental stimulation,” the NYCLU stated in an extensive October 2012 report. “Extreme isolation results in forced idleness and the complete cessation of education and rehabilitation. Like extreme isolation, prisoner separation, long an accepted corrections practice, removes violent or vulnerable prisoners from the general prison population.

“But unlike extreme isolation, separation aims to preserve, as much as possible, the social interaction, education and rehabilitation that maintains prisoners’ psychological and physical well-being and supports a productive return to society.”

The average person confined to solitary confinement in New York State is there for five months, though inmates are often forced into extreme isolation for years.

Between 2007 and 2011, the state placed prisoners in these so-called “Special Housing Unit” cells 75,000 times. An estimated 68,000 of these placements were for disciplinary violations, 84 percent of which did not involved a weapon or an assault, including such petty infractions as the 302 for “smoking in an undesignated areas,” 135 for “wasting food” 114 for “littering” and 234 for “untidy cell or person.”

Each year, New York City dumps 2,000 individuals directly out of the city from solitary confinement, without any means or programs to help them to adapt back to society.