Within the past few weeks, New York City and State have approved varying levels of reforms that target the problematic reliance on solitary confinement of incarcerated individuals. Solitary confinement is most commonly understood as the physical isolation of people in their cells for a minimum of 22 hours a day. Per the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted in 2015, otherwise known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” prolonged solitary confinement for a consecutive period of 15 days or more is straightforwardly considered torture.
As these justified recommendations do not hold the force of international law, solitary confinement continues to deteriorate the mental and physical health of anyone subject to it for the rest of their lives. While often utilized as a disciplinary measure, this practice has consistently been proven to be both cost and functionally ineffective. Often exacerbating the issues it intends to solve, its use further disproportionately harms several vulnerable minority groups. In light of America’s history of mass incarceration, immense prison populations and the recent influence COVID-19 has had in notoriously inadequate facilities, solitary confinement has been pushed to its limits. Even though New York’s comprehensive plans are finally falling in line with global human rights standards, they do not go far enough in curtailing this devastating correctional custom, nor in remedying the longstanding damage that’s already been done.
Not only does America have the largest prison population in the world, but our criminal justice system utilizes solitary confinement more frequently, and for longer periods than almost any other nation worldwide. For more than a decade, countless scientific studies have found strong ties between severe psychological distress and long-term solitary confinement. General research has shown that the stress from being isolated can lead to depression, panic attacks, irritability, paranoia and worsened preexisting mental health issues. In extreme scenarios, this intense loneliness can lead to self-harm or suicidal ideation and attempts, as many who experience confinement become almost incapable of living around other people. Although research that explores the human effects of solitary confinement often focuses on psychological aspects, the trauma it creates undoubtedly takes a physical toll on the body as well. Physicians have found several physical health issues this practice produces, including chronic headaches, fatigue, excessive sweating, sleep and digestive problems, heart palpitations, muscle pain and more. Along with vitamin D deficiency due to long periods spent out of the sun, the lack of physical activity confinement affords obviously makes it difficult to manage preexisting conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
The overarching physical and mental ramifications of solitary confinement, as well as the added extremity minors and individuals with disabilities face, represent just a fraction of the reasons why this practice is so utterly unethical. In some cases, these individuals’ vulnerabilities to assault or harassment require they be separated from general prison populations — for their own protection, of course — which ignores the fact that this segregation leads to further stigmatization.
Additionally, despite the most popular claims by proponents of solitary confinement, little evidence supports the notion that it increases the safety of prisons and/or greater communities. Absent of any type of rehabilitative capacity, these isolation measures are not found to influence the occurrence of violent prison outbursts in any way. Furthermore, instead of contributing to the production of outstanding citizens ready to reintegrate seamlessly into society following their release, studies have found that solitary confinement influences the exact opposite. Specifically, compared to those within the general population, people placed in solitary confinement are not only more likely to commit crimes when released but are more likely to commit a crime more violent than what got them locked up in the first place. Accordingly, any good intentions behind the purpose of solitary confinement are often innately misguided, if not downright corrupt.
In response to the total of adverse effects solitary confinement causes, the Mandela Rules not only categorize indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement as torture, but emphasize its prohibition in regards to especially vulnerable classes. Earlier this month, Governor Cuomo signed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act to end the use of long-term solitary confinement in jails and prisons throughout New York. Specifically, the act prohibits isolation for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 total days over two months. It also bars the practice entirely for the elderly, minors, pregnant women, individuals with disabilities and those with severe mental illnesses. The law also further reduces the number of disciplinary infractions traditionally warranting solitary confinement. It lastly establishes measures that focus specifically on the mental health-related consequences of extreme isolation, such as suicide risk screenings and the creation of “Residential Rehabilitation Units,” which are therapeutic out-of-cell programs. Essentially, officials hope their efforts to reform New York’s criminal justice system through what Cuomo calls “humane correction policies” will lead to more positive outcomes for incarcerated individuals transitioning back into the general population.
Unfortunately, not only do these crucial limitations not take effect for another year, but the campaign to stop the use of solitary confinement in this state has already been a long one. New York first agreed to improve the conditions of prison isolation following a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2015. In 2019, a measure similar to the recent law was almost approved by the legislature. Ultimately, the proposal was met with extreme union pushback and the threat of veto by Governor Cuomo, who cited budget concerns about the high costs of institutional changes. Accordingly, these new developments are principally due to the difference in context as compared to a few years ago. On top of the pandemic, the Democratic legislative majority scored in the House of Representatives last November enabled the override of the governor’s vetoes. Additionally, the strength of independent and nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists in recent years have been a phenomenal force in spreading the message that solitary confinement, in any form, is torture. This is a similar case for individuals and their family members previously detained at Rikers Island and other jails in New York City, who have called out the rise in the proportion of inmates living in isolation in comparison to total falling jail populations.
Although some of the initiatives present in the HALT Act have already been adopted in the city, they’re small restrictions often ignored by authorities in detention centers. Since the ban on solitary confinement for those with serious mental illness or those under 22, enacted in 2015, correctional officials have been caught transferring young detainees to other state institutions without these restrictions in place. Clearly, in any case, reform is necessary at all levels of implementing solitary confinement. In March, the New York City Board of Correction, an independent oversight agency for the city’s jail system, and Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to show their agreement with this position by proposing new rules which would “end” solitary confinement in New York City jails, and close the prison facility on Rikers Island by 2026. However, this new plan simply replaces the use of solitary confinement with an alternative disciplinary system that still isolates individuals from the greater prison population. This new framework, dubbed the Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS), is said to take effect this November for the purpose of separating people in response to their violence and holding them accountable through a “swift, certain and fair” process. Keeping in mind that de Blasio has emphasized that these efforts represent city officials “making good” on their commitment to ban solitary confinement altogether, it’s easy to see why these proposals have been met with criticism from abolition advocates.
In June 2020, Unlock the Box, a national campaign striving to end the use of solitary confinement, released a special report on the influence of COVID-19 in all forms of detention centers and, naturally, on the use of solitary confinement. While substantiating the belief that infection rates are higher behind bars than in outside populations, three times to be exact, Unlock the Box strikingly found that at least 300,000 people had been placed in isolation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This represents an increase of almost 500 percent compared to previous levels. Additionally, although the use of solitary confinement has been thought to be a possible mediation tactic to the spread of infection in jails and prisons, it’s been proven to do the opposite. After the implementation of unit-wide lockdowns to curb the virus, some inmates have reportedly been confined to their cells for the daily 22-hour limit in institutions with particularly poor ventilation and minimal protective gear. Logically, if the solution to catching the virus is being put in solitary confinement, people aren’t going to report their symptoms.
Accordingly, on top of the extreme physical and psychological harm solitary inflicts upon incarcerated individuals, the complete lack of substance and credibility it provides, especially during the pandemic, underscores the necessity for its prohibition. Targeting this problem at the root, one of the most significant ways to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement is to limit the levels of greater prison populations. While further aiding in the fight against COVID-19, quarantine and medical isolation do not ever need to resemble a practice internationally recognized as torture.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a senior majoring in political science.