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Solitary Confinement: It Defines Who We Are

Solitary Confinement: It Defines Who We Are

COMMENTARY

Cruel and unusual—Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

In The New York Times’New York State in Deal to Limit Inmate Isolation,” Benjamin Weiser describes an agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Department of Corrections.1The agreement delays litigation of a suit filed in 2012, by the NYCLU, over the use of isolation for punitive purposes within New York State prisons.2 Their comprehensive report, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, details the basis of the lawsuit.3 Mr Weiser refers to the provisions in the new agreement as “sweeping reforms.”

Highlights of the New York State agreement include: 1) prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for prisoners under age 18 years; 2) prohibiting its use with pregnant women; and 3) limiting its use with developmentally disabled prisoners to a maximum of 30 days.4 The prohibition against solitary confinement for these “special” populations acknowledges that the practice is harmful to human beings. And imposing these limitations by category admits that, however dangerous the pregnant woman or the adolescent is judged to be, somehow the system will find a way to avoid implementing this administrative, ie, non-judicial, punishment.

 

Sweeping reforms? While it may be a relief to New Yorkers that pregnant women and high-school age prisoners will no longer to be subjected to solitary confinement, the reforms that the New York Times calls “sweeping” in fact allow this practice to continue for a minimum of 2 additional years.1,2 These “sweeping reforms” simply protect those who can’t protect themselves (teenagers, unborn children, and the developmentally disabled), those who almost anyone with a bit of common sense, humanity, or political astuteness would exempt. For the vast majority of prisoners, no such limitations have been imposed, nor will any be imposed in the near future because the agreement means “business as usual” until the next court hearing. In other words, it authorized 2 more years of being at risk for solitary confinement for most inmates. The NYCLU and the Federal District Court in Manhattan gave the state of New York exactly what it wanted, and what the New York Times described as “sweeping reforms.”

Lost, stray, and unwanted animalscruel and unusual punishment of psychiatric patients

Most of our society agrees that lost, stray, and unwanted animals should be treated in a caring and humane manner. Shouldn’t our fellow human beings be treated at least as well as our stray animals while “paying their debt to society?” Would anyone allow a stray or unwanted dog to be socially isolated for 5 months? I doubt it. But 5 months is the average duration for “extreme isolation” in New York State prisons—for human detainees!1,3According to Rick Raemisch, the new head of the Colorado prison system, the average length of solitary confinement in Colorado prisons is 23 months. Some inmates there spend as many as 20 years in solitary.5

In corrections language, “solitary confinement” is referred to as “administrative segregation,” or (even more antiseptically) as “Ad Seg.”

Colorado experience
Rick Raemisch is also the former Sheriff of the county in which I have spent most of my professional life. He was recently appointed to replace Tom Clements as the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Mr Clements was brutally murdered at his front door in March 2013.6 The murderer had been released from solitary confinement directly into the community shortly before the murder. The sad irony is that Mr Clements, described by Mr Raemisch to be “as courageous a reformer as they come,” had already reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement by half in just 2 years.5

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