by Jeremy Moule
A new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union raises some serious questions about the use of punitive solitary confinement in the state's prisons.
The state has approximately 5,000 beds in special housing units (SHU's) — many of them built during the last 20 years — at 39 prisons, says the report. Each day, approximately 4,500 prisoners occupy those cells, and the average sentence is five months, it says. The cells create an environment of "extreme isolation, deprived of all meaningful human interaction or mental stimulation, confined to small, barren cells where they spend 23 hours a day," it says. These inmates receive one hour of recreation each day in a small, empty pen outside.
In its report, NYCLU says that prison staff are too quick to use solitary confinement as a first-resort punishment and that the decision is often arbitrary and unjustified. It says that the stress and isolation of solitary confinement can exacerbate mental illness or cause emotional or psychological problems, including depression and anxiety. The isolation can also "fuel unpredictable and sometimes violent outbursts," says the report. (In 2009, The New Yorker's Atul Gawande wrote an excellent piece about the psychological and emotional impacts of solitary confinement.)
The NYCLU isn't the first organization to call New York's use of disciplinary solitary confinement into question. In July, The Nation published an article on the same topic, saying that New York has the highest rate of disciplinary segregation in the country. It reached many of the same conclusions as the NYCLU.
"It's very much a punishment of first resort, doled out for minor rule violations as well as major offenses," the article said.
NYCLU makes several recommendations in its report. It says that prison officials should set clear criteria for when an inmate can be sentenced to solitary confinement, and they should be put there "only in limited and legitimate circumstances for the briefest period and under the least restrictive conditions practicable." It also says that prison officials should audit inmates currently in solitary and transition out the inmates who shouldn't be in those conditions.