Solitary confinement is an unfortunately common method of punishment in the United States’ prison system. Such a form of punishment is particularly harsh in New York State due to the lack of legislation dictating how long someone can be held in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is unequally distributed among the prison population and often leads inmates to experience detrimental psychological effects. Reforming solitary confinement in New York will help reduce inequality in prisons and improve prisoners’ mental health.
Individuals in solitary confinement spend 22-24 hours each day locked in a cell the size of an elevator, either alone or with another person, according to the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. Those held in solitary confinement are typically allowed one or two hours of exercise alone and are not allowed to participate in prison programs, receive therapy treatment or have phone privileges.
Prisons often disguise the practice of solitary confinement by using different terms to describe the same practice, such as segregation or restrictive housing. Prisons that implement solitary confinement do so disproportionately among inmates.
Inmates with untreated mental diseases, inmates who are Muslim or those who have reported rape or abuse by prison officials are often held in solitary confinement. Transgender individuals are also placed in isolated confinement for their own protection to deter harassment in prisons
Such a practice, however, can result in a severe psychological toll on an already vulnerable group of individuals. Transgender advocates explain that putting someone in solitary confinement can cause increased risks of suicide or self-harm among transgender inmates.
In addition, placing transgender inmates in isolated confinement could increase the cases of sexual assault. Nearly half––49 percent—of the sexual misconduct cases reported in prisons are initiated by staff members, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2009-2011 study. An increased surveillance of inmates by the very individuals likely to commit sexual harassment or assault is not beneficial or safe for transgender inmates.
Isolated confinement can also cause severe psychological damage, largely due to a lack of human interaction. Such notable effects of remaining in solitary confinement include hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, violent fantasies and increased rates of suicide.
NYCAIC noted that from 2014-15, 40 percent of suicides in NYS occurred in solitary; however, only 9 percent of individuals in prison are housed in solitary confinement. These extreme psychological ramifications poignantly demonstrate why this practice in prisons should be reformed immediately.
In order to make such reforms, NYS should adopt the standards created in 2010 by the American Bar Association, which describe specific methods of reform related to solitary confinement. Such reforms include evaluating which prisoners are placed in isolated confinement, restricting how long someone can be held in isolated confinement and monitoring inmates in order to prevent detrimental mental health effects from occurring.
In order to implement such a change, students need to become better versed in this issue. After tabling in the MacVittie College Union and speaking with students about the conditions of solitary confinement for a class on mass incarceration—HONR 207, The Morality and Politics of Mass Incarceration in the Black Lives Matter/Orange is the New Black Moment—my group and I found that most students were unaware of the terrible conditions and effects that inmates in solitary confinement suffer.
I urge the Geneseo student body to conduct research about this issue and to try to implement change in NYS to reform the conditions of solitary confinement. Whether such a change comes from signing a petition demanding that Gov. Cuomo change state laws, volunteering for organizations such as the ABA or becoming more involved in local politics, any step will help raise more awareness about this issue.
Every individual has the right to be treated equally and to live in an environment with conditions that promote positive physical and mental health—including prisoners—and students have the responsibility to advocate for these affected inmates who lack a voice in our government.