by Jennifer Mancuso
In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly deemed that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture. Yet in New York State, inmates are locked in solitary confinement cells for months, years, sometimes decades. Sometimes they’re locked up for infractions as minor as walking too slowly or having what is perceived as a “bad attitude.” There is currently no limit on the amount of time an inmate can be held in solitary confinement. In the United States, 4.4% of inmates are held in solitary confinement. In New York State, 9% of inmates are held in solitary cells. That is more than double the national average.
To truly understand what solitary confinement can do to someone, you need to see it through the eyes of my dear friend and colleague, Tarik, who was formerly incarcerated in the New York State Maximum Security prison system. Tarik and I share a sense of justice; but where I am impatient, he is tempered; where I am reactive, he is disciplined and attentive; where I am outraged and aghast at the idea of the brutality practiced in our prison systems, he has lived through that brutality for more than two decades.
Tarik has told me what it was like to be kept in a solitary confinement cell. He was taken down a long corridor of old brick and stone, naked, his hands cuffed behind his back. At the end of that corridor was an old wooden door. Tarik was held by two corrections officers and was forced to stand in front of the door while a third officer opened the door very slowly to expose the remnants of an old electric chair that still stands in what he believes was the basement of the prison. From there, he was taken to his SHU (Special Housing Unit) Cell at Clinton Denemora. There were no windows facing the outside world, though there was one small barred window on the door so that the guards could look in on him. There was a steel bench to sleep on, a steel sink, a steel toilet, and bare walls. He could hear the laughter of the guards as they walked away. He was left there for a year.
To reiterate: He was held for 23 hours a day with no meaningful human contact in a cell the size of an elevator, which contained no windows to the outside world.
Solitary confinement has been shown to lead to hallucination, panic attacks, severe and irreversible mental breakdown, and suicide. Solitary confinement has also been shown to increase the violence in prisons rather than prevent it.
In the 1970s, psychologist Harry Harlow studied the effects of isolation on monkeys. After just a few days of being held in a cage, the monkeys had stopped moving and were huddled into a corner. Some stopped eating and starved themselves to death. When another monkey was put in their cage after their 30 days of isolation, they became violent. When they were forcefully mated, the isolated monkeys did not know how to nurture their babies, and they either abused or neglected them. When I mentioned this study to my friend Tarik, he said “Listen, we don’t need to study monkeys to know that solitary confinement is sub-human treatment.”
This is why New York needs to pass the HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long Term Isolation) bill. The bill, which is sponsored by 61 New York State Assembly members and 17 State Senators, would “restrict the use of segregated confinement and create alternative therapeutic and rehabilitative confinement options.”In my opinion, the bill does not go far enough. The HALT bill does not call for an end to solitary confinement. Instead, it limits the amount of time that an inmate can be held in such extreme conditions to 15 days, the same amount of time as deemed humane by the United Nations. The HALT bill proposes studied and effective alternatives to solitary confinement. And it prohibits solitary confinement for disabled persons, pregnant women and mentally ill inmates. It is a good start.
It is beyond my comprehension that human beings are inclined to throw other human beings into cages like animals. And it is mind blowing that such brutality is legally practiced in such a widespread way. It is also beyond belief that Rockland’s state senator David Carlucci has not supported this bill. Please consider writing to David Carlucci or calling his office to voice your support of the HALT bill. 845-623-3627