Doing The Right Thing At Rikers

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:

A clean criminal record is not a requirement for a career as a Rikers correction officer, the Times reports. Got a gang affiliation and multiple arrests? No problem! Deep-seated psychological issues? Can’t hurt to apply! The Department of Investigation reviewed the Correction Department’s hiring process and discovered “profound dysfunction.” …

This administrative horrorshow does go a long way toward explaining why Rikers has found itself embroiled in so many awful situations, which include but are not limited to the inmate who was beaten and sodomized by a Correction Officer, the teen who died in solitary from a tear in his aorta, and the mentally ill man who died in solitary after guards declined to check on him.

Indeed, violence against prisoners has been at a record high:

Though the de Blasio administration promised reforms and a federal prosecutor’s report brought new attention to a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island, in 2014 New York City correction officers set a record for the use of force against inmates. According to the Associated Press, guards reported using force 4,074 times last year, up from 3,285 times the previous year.

Back to the issue of solitary, it’s worth revisiting Jennifer Gonnerman’s great piece on Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers at 16 after being accused, but never convicted, of taking a backpack. He ended up spending three years there, most of it in solitary. A snapshot:

[Browder] recalls that he got sent [to solitary] initially after another fight. (Once an inmate is in solitary, further minor infractions can extend his stay.) When Browder first went to Rikers, his brother had advised him to get himself sent to solitary whenever he felt at risk from other inmates. “I told him, ‘When you get into a house and you don’t feel safe, do whatever you have to to get out,’ ” the brother said. “ ‘It’s better than coming home with a slice on your face.’ ”

Even in solitary, however, violence was a threat. Verbal spats with officers could escalate. At one point, Browder said, “I had words with a correction officer, and he told me he wanted to fight. That was his way of handling it.” He’d already seen the officer challenge other inmates to fights in the shower, where there are no surveillance cameras.

Browder later tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists with shards of a broken bucket. Also from Gonnerman’s piece:

Between 2007 and mid-2013, the total number of solitary-confinement beds on Rikers increased by more than sixty per cent, and a report last fall found that nearly twenty-seven per cent of the adolescent inmates were in solitary. “I think the department became severely addicted to solitary confinement,” Daniel Selling, who served as the executive director of mental health for New York City’s jails, told me in April; he had quit his job two weeks earlier. “It’s a way to control an environment that feels out of control—lock people in their cell,” he said. “Adolescents can’t handle it. Nobody could handle that.”

Another story of a teen in solitary is seen in the above video. Previous Dish on the inhumane practice here.

The Problem Of America’s Prisons, Ctd

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:

As foreboding as it was, Eastern State was designed from the beginning to implement new, more humane theories about crime and punishment. Presaging many of today’s arguments on corrections reform, the emphasis was much less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. Philadelphians, drawing on their Quaker roots, had long argued for better treatment of prisoners. They believed that if prisoners were left alone in complete silence, with nothing to occupy their minds but thoughts of their misdeeds, they would become genuinely penitent. (Hence, the building was known as a “penitentiary.”)

The place was utterly silent. Guards walked the halls with socks over their shoes. The wheels on the wagons that brought food down the long corridors were covered in leather. For 23 hours of every day, inmates were confined to a 7.5- by-12-foot cell with a church-like vaulted ceiling and small skylight. For the remaining hour they were allowed outside within their own small exercise area. Inmates in adjoining cells were never allowed outside at the same time, and any communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden.

In order to implement these new ideas in prison reform, Eastern State boasted a number of design innovations. Because each prisoner would never leave his cell, water for washing had to be brought to him and a flush toilet provided. (By comparison, running water didn’t make it into the White House until 1833.) A rudimentary system provided heat to each cell – something many Philadelphia residents couldn’t afford themselves.

Recent Dish on solitary confinement here. More posts from the archive here, here, here, and here.

The Problem Of American Prisons


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:

A majority of those surveyed [by psychologist Craig Haney] experienced symptoms such as dizziness, heart palpitations, chronic depression, while 41 percent reported hallucinations, and 27 percent had suicidal thoughts—all levels significantly higher than those of the overall prison populations. An unrelated study published last week found that isolated inmates are seven times more likely to hurt or kill themselves than inmates at large. These effects, Haney says, don’t only show how isolation harms inmates—they tell us that it achieves the opposite of the supposed goal of rehabilitating them for re-entry into society.

Helen Vera adds:

Solitary increases the likelihood that a former prisoner, after release, will wind up back in prison. It is extremely expensive, costing as much as two or three times more to hold a prisoner in solitary confinement than in even a traditional maximum-security setting. And it exposes corrections systems to time-consuming and burdensome lawsuits. The commonplace reliance on solitary for prison discipline is a failed experiment, and it’s time for it to end.

Last week there was a glimmer of good news: the NY Department of Corrections decided it will no longer use solitary as a punishment for prisoners younger than 18. Meanwhile, Matt Stroud covers the failures of the private prison industry:

Alex Friedmann, who spent six years as a prisoner in a CCA facility in Clifton, Tennessee, now runs the prisoner rights magazine Prison Legal News. He advocates against private prison companies (and holds stock in CCA so he can speak up at its shareholder meetings). …

Public officials support private prisons because they often need the bed space, regardless if those beds are tied to companies that are “abusive, lead to higher recidivism rates and cost more,” Friedmann says. Second, he continues, public officials are often “ideologically wedded to the concept of privatization in spite of the industry’s abysmal track record,” and third, public officials “receive direct benefits from private prison companies, such as campaign contributions, consulting contracts or the promise of future employment by such firms.”

(Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Crueler Than Fiction

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

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.

Violent incidents at California prisons have actually increased by almost 20 percent since Pelican Bay opened and long-term isolation became institutionalized statewide. When a national commission spearheaded by a retired federal appeals judge and a former US attorney general looked into the matter in 2006, they concluded that responsibility for prison violence lay primarily with the prison authorities, not the prisoners themselves. A system that either packs prisoners into overcrowded cells or isolates them, then fails to provide an adequate daily structure of work, exercise, reading and socializing, is a system ready to explode.

Previous Dish on solitary confinement here, here, and here.

A Pen Pal In Solitary

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.

For the first year or so, she was in a cell that had an inner door of bars, which remained closed all the time, and an outer solid door which she could slide open, allowing her to talk with other prisoners in nearby isolation cells. Then she was moved to a cell with a door that stays closed all the time. The lights in her cell are left on 24 hours a day. When she leaves her cell, it’s in full irons, with her ankles shackled and her wrists chained to her waist. The guards aren’t allowed to talk to her, except to give her commands. All her visits are non-contact. She loves long hugs, but hasn’t had a hug of any kind in almost five years. Even when her mom and dad visit, she only talks to them over a phone, through a glass window.

The effects of solitary confinement – especially depression and loneliness – are obvious from her letters. She spends much of her day sleeping, and only gets limited time outside her cell for exercise and a shower. Guards are not allowed to talk to her, except to issue commands. To me, the effects are obvious. She wrote regularly; she was optimistic and curious. Today she writes sporadically and fights a never-ending battle with depression. She deals with the depression with prescription drugs, prescribed by the prison psychologist.

Now that I’ve seen the effects of long-term solitary confinement on someone I know, I can say with certainty: it’s torture.

Solitary For Life

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 herehere, and here.

United Against Solitary

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

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:

Sunnat was, in many ways, simply unlucky. He spoke a language that was rare at Guantánamo. The camp had only six Uzbek speakers; none were housed near him. He was held for eight years not because he was dangerous but because no country, not even his native Uzbekistan, would accept him as a Guantánamo deportee. (The military was required to hold him until a nation agreed to take him.) In fact, his innocence isolated him further: once he was no longer deemed a threat, he ceased meeting with an Uzbek interpreter and an interrogator. Then he was denied materials to learn English or Arabic, because the detention center has a policy against helping the presumed-dangerous detainees communicate with one another.

Depriving a prisoner of linguistic company can be a strategy: it can increase a prisoner’s dependence on an interrogator, making him more likely to talk, or it can prevent prisoners from organizing resistance. More typically, cases like Sunnat’s are unfortunate consequences of policy and circumstance. Whatever the cause, Honigsberg argues in his paper, “Alone in a Sea of Voices: Recognizing a New Form of Isolation by Language Barriers, or Linguistic Isolation,” the psychological effects of solitary confinement through linguistic isolation are largely the same as those via lock and key: impaired impulse control, an inability to concentrate or think clearly, confusion, obsessive behaviors, paranoia, and even a state resembling catatonia. A growing body of evidence suggests that a few weeks of solitary confinement for a prisoner amounts to torture. “Isolation by language barriers,” Honigsberg writes, “should be recognized as a distinct human rights abuse.”

“There Is Nothing I’ve Experienced In My Life That Is Worse”

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.