Archives For: Solitary Confinement

Doing The Right Thing At Rikers

Jan 16 2015 @ 8:19am

John Surico relays some actual good news out of the Big Apple when it comes criminal justice:

New York City’s Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in America, has been making headlines for the worst possible reasons lately. Between the ritualized beating of teenage inmates and horrendous treatment of mentally ill prisoners, it’s no wonder the feds are suing NYC over civil rights violations at the sprawling complex.

So it came as something of a surprise when, on Tuesday morning, New York City officials announced that, starting next year, Rikers Island will no longer hold anyone in solitary confinement under the age of 21, making it the first jail of its kind to do so in the country. Furthermore, no one—regardless of age—will be allowed to suffer in solitary for more than 30 consecutive days, and a separate housing unit will be established for those inmates most prone to violence.

Suffice it to say this is a big deal: Rikers Island just went from being one of the most dysfunctional jails in America to tentatively claiming a spot at the vanguard of the emerging criminal justice reform movement.

Major props to Mayor de Blasio, who last March appointed a new jails commissioner who promised to “end the culture of excessive solitary confinement.” But not all the news from Rikers was good this week:

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In an otherwise grim report about solitary confinement, Shruti Ravindran points outs that prison officials across the country are rethinking the practice:

A recent case involving death row inmates in Unit 32, a supermax facility in Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, sparked off a change of heart among prison officials, and something of a national trend. When [forensic psychiatrist Terry] Kupers evaluated the residents in Unit 32 in 2002, which reeked of malfunctioning toilets, he found that about 100 of them had severe undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental illnesses. They hallucinated, threw feces at the guards, and howled through the night; in response, they received punishment, not treatment. After listening to the accounts of inmates who described the facility as a hellhole and insane asylum, the prison authorities gradually reduced the segregated population from 1,000 to 150, upon which violence plummeted by 70 percent.

The Mississippi experience led to a re-examination of the rationale behind solitary confinement in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington. Maine cut its segregated population by almost 60 per cent, and made it onerous to keep a prisoner in confinement for more than 72 hours. The Colorado prison authorities reviewed their segregation practices and, in 2012, announced the closure of a 316-bed administrative segregation unit that will save the state $13.6 million this year. This January, prison authorities in Illinois closed down its notoriously repressive supermax, Tamms Correctional Center, which cost the state $26 million annually, or about $64,800 per inmate per year to run.

In a history of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, David Kidd conveys some fascinating details about the origins of solitary in the US:

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The Problem Of American Prisons

Feb 28 2014 @ 10:01am


Robert A. Ferguson’s new book Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment explores the unusual cruelty and vengefulness in our criminal justice system. Andrew Cohen praises the book for positing “that America needs a fundamentally revised understanding of the concept of punishment itself if it is to save its soul”:

As a matter of law and politics, Ferguson asserts, the concept of retribution clearly has won in America. But what a terrible price to pay for such victory. With a few notable recent exceptions– including New York’s brave new foray into education as a defense against recidivism– we are a nation that seeks to punish, not rehabilitate, our prisoners. In this respect we have gone back in time, back to a dark age in our penological past, back to where in the 21st Century we justify locking away a mentally ill teenager in solitary for 17 years.

Joseph Stromberg looks at the damage wrought by solitary confinement:

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Crueler Than Fiction

Dec 20 2013 @ 8:00am

Andrew Cohen marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the film Papillon with an article on the use and abuse of solitary confinement in American prisons:

Pick a state, any state, and you will find prisoners who are being treated as poorly, or worse, than were the prisoners depicted on Devil’s Island. … For example, in Colorado, as I wrote last month, state officials placed Sam Mandez into solitary confinement when he was just 18 years old. Not because he had tried to escape or because he was violent with his guards. But for petty offenses. Sixteen years later, he is still in confinement, made mentally ill by the isolation, and yet still without the proper medical attention the Constitution requires him to receive. What made moviegoers grimace in 1973 when they saw McQueen mistreated in that cell hardly makes them take notice today.

Last month, Cohen provided more details on Mandez’s case.

Isolation Incites Violence

Oct 18 2013 @ 7:45pm

Andrew Gumbel explains:

Prisoners going into solitary [confinement] sometimes imagine they can take advantage of their isolation to read, or study, or develop an interest in painting, but, invariably, they grow listless and unfocused within just a few days — unable to concentrate for even short periods of time. In a 2003 paper, Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz noted: “There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days […] failed to result in negative psychological effects.”

The evidence of these studies clearly contradicts the official line that isolating prisoners is a necessary measure to reduce prison violence.

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A Pen Pal In Solitary

Aug 6 2013 @ 3:19pm

A reader writes:

I never imagined that I would someday be in a position where I personally know someone in solitary confinement, or that I would be able to confirm what Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about solitary confinement: “Whether in Walpole or Beiruit or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.” I have been writing to a long-term prisoner since September, 2004. In early 2009, she was placed into solitary confinement, where she remains today, four and a half years later. Our correspondence has continued throughout.

She is an outgoing, social person, and four-plus years of solitary confinement has been particularly hard on her.

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Solitary For Life

Jul 24 2013 @ 10:49am

Solitary confinement has a way of outliving its justifications. First it was supposed to inspire spiritual reflection and penance, then it became a last-resort punishment. Now, Rob Fischer reports, isolation units serve as long-term housing for gang members:

Ninety-eight per cent of inmates in Pelican Bay [State Prison]’s [security housing units (SHUs)] are there because they have been “validated” as prison-gang members, based on any number of criteria—some were identified by other inmates, others by tattoos or artwork. The gangs aren’t so well represented in solitary just because their members commit more serious infractions, though that’s almost certainly true; rather, it’s because SHUs are the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (C.D.C.R.)’s] gang-fighting strategy. The only way out is to disavow membership, and the only way to do that is to “debrief,” or inform on other gang members.

Most of the major prison gangs have “blood in, blood out” policies, under which an assault is part of the initiation and death is the only way out—and that can extend to members’ families. The debriefing requirement leaves some inmates with no good option but to languish in the SHUs indefinitely. It can be a particularly dispiriting state of affairs for those eligible for release. Parole boards require certain benchmarks of good behavior, like work participation and education attainment, that aren’t offered to inmates in SHUs. As a result, anyone in a SHU who has been sentenced under California’s three-strikes laws, which impose minimum-to-life sentences on third-time offenders, faces the serious possibility of a de facto life sentence in solitary confinement.

Fischer notes that Pelican Bay once capped SHU stays at 180 days; today, nearly half of its 1,100 inmates in solitary confinement have lived that way for more than 10 years. More Dish on solitary confinement here, here, and here.

United Against Solitary

Jul 10 2013 @ 6:36pm

Approximately 30,000 prisoners have entered the third day of what might be the largest hunger strike in California’s history. The strike, which has spread to Washington state, has already left ten prisoners under medical observation. Abby Ohlheiser provides context:

While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues–many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding–the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement. Last October, Mother Jones published a must-read on solitary in California, written by Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers kept in an Iranian solitary confinement cell for 26 months. Spoiler: Bauer thought California’s conditions were worse.

Julianne Hing adds:

The United Nations has found that just 15 days in solitary confinement violates human rights standards and can do irreperable psychological harm to a person, according to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yet hundreds of California inmates have been in indefinite isolation for more than a decade, according to Amnesty International.

Lauren Kirchner reports that some prisoners have expressed solidarity with GTMO detainees. In the midst of the ongoing force-feeding controversy, Robin Abcarian notes:

In California, according to hunger strike protocols released by the Department of Corrections, no prisoner will be forced to eat at any time if he makes it clear in advance that that is his wish. In California, a prisoner has the right to starve himself to death. It shouldn’t have to come to that.

The Silent Mistreatment

Jun 9 2013 @ 8:03pm

David Berreby chronicles the plight of Sunnat, an Uzbek captured in Afghanistan at age 16 who was taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 – a situation made especially harrowing by his near total linguistic isolation:

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Shane Bauer, who was kept in solitary confinement while held hostage in Iran, visited Pelican Bay, a supermax California prison with a large solitary population. One of his guides at Pelican Bay asked him how Iranian situation compared:

"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

Here, there are no windows.