Prison Reform Is Influencing New York to Diminish Use of Solitary Confinement.
2015 has been an important year in the ongoing fight for prison reform. Lately, discussions about reducing the amount of inmates in the United States has been a hotly contested area of political discourse, with many arguing that the country’s disproportionate number of incarcerated citizens is a direct result of the botched “War on Drugs.” Similarly, many feel that America’s prison system is a for-profit institution that too often victimizes people of color with sentences not reflective of their charges. As many are now familiar, the United States has the dubious honor of having more of its citizens in prisons than any other country. With around 4% of the world’s population, we house a staggering 25% of the world’s inmates, and as a presidential campaign is well underway, many are looking to bring the issue to the front of American politics, and the movement is gaining some considerable traction. Earlier this year, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit federal inmates, and even more recently, a history-making federal release program allowed many inmates to come home early, a move meant to directly offset the overpopulation of prisons by allowing non-violent offenders a shortened sentence.
Earlier today, news broke that New York State will consider overhauling its solitary confinement procedures statewide, making it another step forward in what many call the humanization of the prison system. By definition, solitary confinement is the practice of cutting off a prisoner’s contact with human contact except for the occasional interaction with prison employees. Often deployed as a system of punishment for an inmate who has misbehaved, solitary confinement has come under fire from human rights groups, who argue that it is a form of torture. Many studies have shown that lengthy periods of time without human contact can quite literally drive people mad, and while in most cases this isn’t the case, there are those who argue solitary confinement is used too often, too harshly, and without much oversight. Arguments such as these have evidently led the New York Civil Liberties Union and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, according to the New York Times, to reach an agreement after the NYCLU brought a lawsuit against the state based on “the abusive treatment of inmates in solitary in the state’s prisons. For 23 hours a day, 4,000 inmates are currently locked away, sometimes for years, with little if any human contact, no access to rehabilitative programs and a diet that can be restricted to a foul-tasting brick of bread and root vegetables known at the prisons as ‘the loaf.'”
According to reporters Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip, the whopping $62-million agreement will usher in initiatives to “reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement by at least a quarter and usher in a range of reforms, including limiting the time served to three months in most cases and providing the prisoners with certain privileges, like monthly phone calls and group recreation.” After three years of contentious litigation, New York seems to have addressed some of the severe criticisms it has been facing over its prison system, something that grabbed national headlines earlier this year when two murderers escaped from its Clinton Correctional Facility. It also joins other states including Colorado and Washington who have taken bold measures to reduce the implementation of solitary confinement, but there remain some very difficult details to work out. For example, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement has actually increased, and there is also the issue of the correction officers’ union, which apparently has yet to support the agreement in question. With quite a tremendous sway in prison policies, the union could take issue with one or more of the agreement’s policies, which include the following:
“The agreement establishes a maximum sentence of three months for most disciplinary violations, except assaults, and 30 days for almost any prisoner who has committed a nonviolent infraction for the first time. Isolation will no longer be imposed for first-time violations for drug use or possession, which in the past has accounted for as much as one-fifth of the solitary population. The number of infractions punishable by solitary confinement will be cut in half, and violations that once gave corrections officers wide discretion to impose long sentences, such as “disobeying orders,” will now have a maximum of 30 days.”
There is, unsurprisingly, much more to the Times’ report, which includes some history of the prison-reform movement, the thoughts of inmates who have been treated harshly, as well as the arguments against the agreement as it currently stands. However, the concept of solitary confinement is one that is generally understood outside of the context of current prison politics. Do you think the United States should make solitary confinement a federal duty to address, or should it be up to the states to decide?