The United States currently holds over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, more than any democratic country in the world. Ironically, this country first began placing prisoners in solitary confinement in the 19th century, as a humane innovation in penological practice. Prison activists of that era believed that solitary confinement enabled prisoners to engage in philosophical contemplation that would be rehabilitative. But this practice actually led prisoners to develop severe mental health issues, and the experiment was abandoned.
Today, the use and abuse of solitary confinement has made a comeback, but it is not used for rehabilitation. It is inflicted upon prisoners to punish major offenses, minor infractions of prison rules, or to “protect” prisoners who have been abused or assaulted by other prisoners.
This nation’s solitary confinement practices are one of the most inhumane failings of its broken criminal justice system. Scientific research and worldwide practice have long disproved theories that time spent in “the hole” – the common term for solitary cells – benefits a prisoner’s development. Research proves that that the isolation experienced in solitary confinement leads to mental illnesses and other detrimental effects that are barriers to rehabilitation.
Further, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture has concluded that 15 days in solitary confinement is a recognized form of torture. Despite this overwhelming evidence, U.S. prison officials continue to put prisoners in solitary confinement every day.
Fortunately, a growing movement is urging the United States government to ban solitary confinement. Faith-based and civil rights organizations, along with elected leaders like Senator Dick Durbin, have advocated toend this practice because it is a “cruel and unusual punishment,” and because it is fiscally and practically ineffective.
New York is one of the states resisting this movement. The state currently holds approximately 4,500 people in solitary confinement. While historically tough-on-crime states like Mississippi are working to drastically reduce the number of prisoners housed in solitary confinement, New York City plans to expand its solitary confinement capacity by 69 percent by the end of 2013.
It is urgent for advocates to continue to call for reform to reform and reduce solitary confinement practices in jails and prisons in New York and beyond. Please join the Brennan Center for Justice, the Innocence Project, and the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice for a public event “Stop Solitary: A Discussion for Criminal Justice Reform Advocates” on October 24, 2012 to discuss how we can do this. Many of the country’s leading criminal justice reform advocates, including Madeline DeLone, Executive Director of the Innocence Project, Nick Yarris, a death row exoneree, and Taylor Pendergrass, Senior Staff Attorney at the NYCLU, will lead the discussion.