The Hole

The psychological effects of solitary confinement, and the evolving fight to eliminate it.

Prisoners aged 21 and under will no longer be held in solitary at New York City’s Rikers Island Correctional Facility, pictured above.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters,JPEGTOII2/MED

A new rule approved by New York City’s Board of Correction Tuesday will prohibit the use of solitary confinement to punish inmates aged 21 and under on Rikers Island, the city’s primary jail complex. The rationale behind the reform is that, because their brains are still developing, young people are particularly vulnerable to the destructive psychological effects of extended isolation. At Rikers, there are roughly 800 prisoners in solitary at any given time spending 23 hours a day in their cells, followed by one hour of “recreation” spent alone inside a small metal cage. The new rule comes about a year after city officials announced that Rikers would no longer subject inmates classified as “seriously mentally ill” to solitary confinement, and about 10 months after the New York State prison system agreed to stop using it to punish bad behavior by 16- and 17-year-olds. The passage of such measures, notable for sparing certain kinds of inmates from so-called punitive segregation while keeping the option open for others, are part of a wave of reform that’s been gathering momentum around the country over the past several years.

The news has been greeted with excitement by opponents of solitary confinement: Christine Herrman, director of the Segregation Reduction Project at the Vera Institute of Justice, told the New York Times that she had never heard of a 21-and-under exclusion being imposed anywhere else. But some advocates of reform are feeling a tinge of concern about what yesterday’s news of incremental progress might mean for the more ambitious effort to get rid of solitary confinement entirely. Passing protections that only apply to young inmates, or inmates with mental illness, they say, could send the message that placing healthy adults in solitary—for months or even years at a time—is perfectly fine.

“The thing I worry about is, if we cabin off this group of people—people under 21, or under age of 18, or whatever—and put them aside and say, ‘That’s a special group, and we need to treat them differently,’ that makes it seem like you can treat everyone else as harshly as we did in the past,” said Alexander Reinert, a professor at Yeshiva University Cardozo School of Law, who helped the New York Civil Liberties Union in pressuring New York State to pass age-oriented reforms last year. “Solitary confinement is harmful for everyone,” Reinert said, “no matter how old they are.”

An estimated 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States; while some end up there because they have been deemed a lethal threat to staff and other inmates, others are sent as a result of breaking rules or ignoring orders. Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the psychologically damaging effects of solitary confinement, experts say. In 2002, an investigation by the Department of Justice found that young people experience depression, paranoia, and anxiety “after very short periods of isolation,” in part because they “experience time and confinement more severely than adults.” A study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives found that, of the 110 juvenile suicides that took place in confinement in the U.S. between 1995 and 1999, half were in isolation when they died, and 62 percent had been at some previous point.

According to Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney at the NYCLU, scientific research on the brain development of young people was crucial in bringing about the new rules that were announced yesterday by New York’s correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte. But Pendergrass says there’s a “huge risk” involved in creating special policies for individual categories of inmates, even if there are good reasons to do so. The unintended consequence, he said, could be to make people think that “if we get kids out and we get the seriously mentally ill out, we have more or less solved the problem.” Most people working to reform solitary confinement policies do not believe that; they argue that subjecting anyone to extended social isolation amounts to torture.

The choice between pursuing incremental change in the interest of reducing as much suffering as possible in the short term and holding out for more comprehensive reform is something advocates in many different areas of public policy must confront. For example, arguing for reduced prison sentences for people convicted of nonviolent crimes, as advocates of Proposition 47 did in California last year, could be seen as implicitly endorsing the idea that violent criminals should be sent to prison for many decades.

However, many advocates see incremental reform efforts as a crucial step in working toward bigger goals. “I see them as necessarily being on parallel tracks,” said Elizabeth Powers, who specializes in juvenile justice policy at the Children’s Defense Fund–New York (CDF), an organization that testified before the city’s Board of Correction during the run-up to Tuesday’s announcement. Powers made an analogy to the CDF’s overarching goal of getting children out of Rikers Island. “We don’t think young people should be in adult prisons and jails,” she said. “At the same time, while young people are there, we’re going to advocate for them to have the best treatment possible.”

Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, said in an email that finding new, less punitive ways to deal with individuals who might otherwise end up in solitary can serve as a sort of proof of concept, to show that there are viable options worth considering.

“Yes, there is a risk that carving out specific groups for exclusion from isolated confinement makes abolition of the practice more difficult,” Kerr wrote. “The other side of that coin is that as systems are required to develop other alternative management techniques and programming (for those carved-out groups), we will be in a better position to say that abolition can be achieved. The more we monitor new programs, the better we will be able to recommend appropriate, successful alternatives to isolated confinement.”

Pendergrass, too, said he believes that incremental change to solitary confinement policy will ultimately advance the cause of more comprehensive reform, by demonstrating to prison staff and officials that reducing institutional reliance on punitive segregation can improve conditions inside the prison walls. Even a skeptical guard might realize that solitary was actually making things worse—and that with less of it, Pendergrass said, he might think, “not only is my day-to-day working environment better because I’m not locking some guy in a cell 24 hours a day, where he’s losing his mind and cursing at me every time I walk past him, but violence and disruption is actually down because we’re responding to problems by trying to address the underlying behavior rather than trying to punish it out of everybody.”

Pendergrass sees another reason to be optimistic. Among the provisions unveiled in yesterday’s announcement is one he believes has received less attention than it should: Assuming the new rules go into effect in January 2016, as they are slated to, there will be a hard limit on the length of time any Rikers inmate, including adults, can be kept in punitive segregation. That limit will be 30 consecutive days.

“It’s a huge, significant step, and the only reason to do it, from an administrative standpoint, is that you think you’re damaging people if you keep them there longer, and that they need that type of break for their mental health, for their well-being and for their basic dignity,” Pendergrass said.

The fact that the Correction Department is passing the new 30-day rule is reason to believe that officials there understand the damage that solitary confinement can do to any inmate who is subjected to it, regardless of how old they are.