If you think solitary confinement is no big deal, that it’s a reasonable punishment for those who commit crimes, try it yourself.
This weekend, go in your bathroom or another small room in your house. Cover the window with thick paper except for a six-by-eight-inch rectangle. Turn off the lights, and sit there for 23 hours in a row.
No talking on your cell phone. No communicating with your spouse or your kids. Just sit there on the floor in the dark and deal with it.
At the beginning of your 24th hour, go outside on the sidewalk. Do some push-ups. Maybe bounce a ball. Then after an hour, go lock yourself back in the bathroom and spend another 23 hours there.
Sounds like a fun weekend, huh?
Now imagine doing that day after day, for weeks or even years, your only human contact being someone sliding a crappy meal through a slot in the door, your only exercise an hour a day in a cage jumping around on a concrete floor.
This is what our prison system does to people in the name of justice.
They do it not only to hardened criminals, but teenagers and the mentally ill. They do it to punish inmates for offenses as minor as mouthing off to a guard.
An American Bar Association study found that long-term isolation “decreases brain activity and can provoke serious psychiatric harms, including severe depression, hallucination, withdrawal, panic attacks and paranoia.” Even in short terms, solitary is proven particularly harmful to juvenile offenders.
Those who spend long periods of time in solitary confinement are more likely to re-offend after they’re released from prison. And many released inmates have trouble forming lasting social bonds, which could lead them back to a life of crime. So it doesn’t protect the public.
Thankfully, New York state is on the verge of severely restricting the practice, particularly for the mentally ill and juvenile offenders. The Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill (A3080B/S4784) that would limit the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement. It also would end the practice for vulnerable people, restrict the criteria for who can be sentenced to solitary confinement, improve conditions in solitary areas and create more humane alternatives.
The bill would limit special populations to 48 hours of solitary, prevent most other inmates from serving more than 15 straight days or 20 days out of 60, and provide mental health screening.
Restricting solitary confinement is not being soft on crime. It’s not coddling violent criminals. It’s not a partisan issue.
It’s making our criminal justice system more humane and more effective in rehabilitating inmates and maintaining order in our prisons.
The Senate has until the end of session next Wednesday to pass this common-sense reform. Let’s hope it does so.