EDITORIAL: HALT solitary confinement in New York prisons

Long-term isolation causes psychological damage, doesn't help with discipline or safety
Daivion Davis, who went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder.
Daivion Davis, who went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder.

What can possibly be so bad about solitary confinement in prison?

You get your own cell. No one can hurt you while you’re in there. You don’t have to deal with the murderers and rapists and other sadists. And you can be alone with your thoughts.

If you’re someone who has to guard these criminals eight or 10 hours a day, solitary confinement also has appeal.

You get the trouble-makers away from the other inmates where they can’t hurt you or others. And when the inmates go back into the general population, they’ll be better behaved. That’s the theory, at least.

Despite what many believe, solitary confinement isn’t a reasonable and effective punishment or deterrent. It’s a dangerous, cruel practice that needs to be significantly scaled back.

On any given day, as many as 3,000 inmates are confined in segregated housing in New York. A disproportionate number of them are people of color.

Multiple studies show that even short-term solitary confinement — being locked up in a cell alone 24 hours a day, away from human contact and deprived of programming and therapy —can lead to severe permanent psychological, physical and social damage.

As a prison management tool, it’s often not used appropriately. In five out of every six cases, it’s used as punishment for non-violent offenses. And studies show that prisoners who’ve served long stretches in solitary have more difficulty complying with prison rules after they’re released, defeating its use as a tool to maintain order.

Solitary confinement also can be particularly devastating for disabled and mentally ill individuals, young and elderly inmates, and pregnant women. 

Short-term, yes, segregating an inmate from other inmates can help diffuse a dangerous situation and serve a punitive role. But much longer than a few days, and the balance shifts toward it doing more harm than good.

That’s why New York lawmakers, before they leave Albany for the summer next week, need to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act — a.k.a., the HALT bill.

The bill (A2500/S1623) would limit the time someone could be segregated to no more than 15 consecutive days or 20 out of 60 days (unless they commit specific acts during confinement).

It also specifies certain conditions and justifications for placing someone in segregated confinement, ends confinement for vulnerable people like kids and the mentally ill, and provides therapy and a heightened level of care for inmates placed in solitary. 

Passage of HALT will make our correctional system safer, more effective  and more humane without threatening prison discipline or public safety.

This bill can’t wait another year.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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