Thousands of prisoners across the country spend over 22 hours a day in solitary confinement. Their offenses range from misdemeanors to violent crimes. Prison officials claim their segregation is necessary to keep prison violence at a minimum. However, statistics do not indicate that solitary confinement has led to a decrease in prison violence or a positive benefit to prison life. So what is the purpose of solitary confinement if its goals are not being realized?
That is exactly the question that the members of the Jails Action Coalition of New York City posed as they marched for an end to the practice of solitary confinement and police brutality on the morning of Monday, July 9, 2012. This coalition was formed to fight for adequate mental health treatment for prisoners, an end to solitary confinement, and the cessation of the culture of brutality within prisons. A group of about 50 protestors lined up in front of the Department of Corrections on 51 Chambers Street and marched in front of the main entrance to the building. The protest was organized in large part by the Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders and the Jails Action Coalition of New York City.
After marching for an hour in front of the Department of Corrections, the organizers huddled everyone in a semicircle to hear the voices of participants. Among them was Dilcio Acosta, a formerly-incarcerated person who spent many lonely months in what he described to be the “mentally deteriorating” setting of solitary confinement. He described the horrors of solitary confinement and the consequences it has on the human mind. Acosta witnessed prisoners develop mental illnesses as a result of the segregated units and saw them punished as they requested help. He described a vicious cycle that causes mentally ill people who cannot interact in social settings being punished for the results of their illnesses by being placed in solitary confinement; a situation that only perpetuates and exacerbates their illness. As he suggested, he doesn’t know how he did not come out of that situation with any mental disorders.
Sister Marian, a former chaplain at Rikers Island, spoke about similar practices she witnessed. She noted the clear violations of the Geneva Convention’s policy of torture within Rikers Island prison and highlighted the deteriorating mental health of the inmates in solitary confinement.
The last speaker was formerly-incarcerated Tulane Law student Bruce Reilly. He is a founding member of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement (and my fellow intern). Reilly described the sensory deprivation he experienced and witnessed while in prison, an injustice that thousands of incarcerated people continue to suffer daily.
All the speakers suggested, these conditions do not adhere to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ mission to ensure that “Federal offenders serve their sentences of imprisonment in facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure.” Nor do they serve to create a person capable of contributing to society. Rather, solitary dehumanizes an individual and teaches them only to survive in prison, rather than live in society.
On a federal level, alternatives to solitary confinement have been presented by many organizations. Most recently Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has proposed legislation to reform the practice. He suggests a large scale reduction of the practice and the incorporation of findings on prisoner behaviors to best suit their needs. The Senator’s actions are a step in the right direction, but, solitary confinement reform must be holistic. Alternatives must also question how the prison system itself operates.
Incarceration is a form of punishment. The idea that punishing will teach a lesson is ineffective. The increasing amount of mentally ill people in prisons, and the mental disorders that solitary confinement has created, suggests that rehabilitative policies should be pursued rather than the policy of deterrence currently used. Prisons should not destroy a person. They should help produce someone who is ready to contribute to society. When someone enters prison, rehabilitative policies should allow that individual to reclaim their place in society with a positive force, rather than reenter society as a broken person.
Locally, the Jails Action Coalition of New York City continues their advocacy efforts with a meeting on Monday, July 20 at 6:00 pm at New York University School of Law, Furman Hall (245 Sullivan Street, Room 210). More information will be posted on their Facebook page as the date approaches.