The nationwide push to end solitary confinement, which criminal justice experts excoriate as inhuman, archaic and counterproductive, and which medical authorities decry as causing profound psychological damage, is meeting fierce resistance from prison wardens in some states who are unwilling to give up what they see as a key tool for punishing unruly inmates—or protecting them from harm.
Nevertheless, efforts to seriously curb how it is used are gaining traction across the US, thanks to a combination of state-legislative action, media pressure, and philanthropic-community campaigning over the past two years, leading reformers told a conference at John Jay College Thursday.
“We are at a tipping point in this country,” said Jessica Sandoval, the Washington, D.C.-based chief strategist of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project’s Stop Solitary Confinement Campaign.
Sandoval was one of a number of researchers, medical experts, reform advocates and survivors of solitary who spoke on the first day of the conference, entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement: Where Do We Go From Here?”
The speakers made clear that serious obstacles exist to significant reform.
One of the biggest hurdles is the lack of transparency about how many people are placed in solitary confinement in a given year. Unlike other areas of criminal justice, there is no reliable national database on the frequency of the use of solitary in jails and state prisons—or on the length of time inmates are confined.
Two survivors of solitary who spoke at the conference gave gripping accounts of their ordeal. Anthony Graves, who had been convicted of a murder he did not commit, spent 16 years in solitary on a Texas prison’s Death Row until he was exonerated in 2010. Mario Bueno, convicted of a murder committed when he was a teenager, spent a total of three years in solitary before he turned 21.
“If you’ve ever as a child been held down by someone stronger than you, feeling you could never get up, no matter what you did, you’ll understand what it felt like,” Graves said.
The best estimate is that 80,000 men and women, some of them juveniles, are currently being held in solitary in America.
Another of the conference panelists, Minnesota State Rep. Nick Zerwas, revealed that after being shocked by a newspaper story on the practice, he tried to gather data on solitary confinement to help him draft legislation and met “pushback and resistance” from the governor’s office and the prison wardens.
“You need data that is meaningful and usable,” said Zerwas, a Republican. “If you have a bureaucracy that is unwilling to cooperate, they can trickle out the data in an unusable way.”
Marc Levin, vice-president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and one of the co-founders of the conservative Right on Crime movement, said another hurdle to change was the fact that “legislators are deferential to corrections officials.”
He described solitary confinement as the government’s “most oppressive deprivation of liberty.”
But without facts on who is being held in solitary, why, and for how long, speakers agreed that accomplishing real reform is an uphill struggle.
“These facilities don’t collect data and they’re not transparent,” said Sandoval.
Particularly when it comes to young offenders, she said, prison officials insist that solitary confinement “is a tool they cannot do without.”
In many prisons, solitary confinement—which correctional authorities variously rename as segregated housing, administrative segregation units or other euphemisms—lasts for 23 hours out of 24 five days a week, and for the entire 48 hours of a weekend. The small concrete rooms, usually six feet by eight feet, are commonly windowless, with only a toilet, and the inmates have no human contact or access to books.
In many, the lights are on 24 hours a day, and inmates are unable to turn them off.
In January, 2016, then-President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for the relatively small number of juveniles who are in the federal prison system, and his Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention sought to help states eliminate its use as well.
He also ordered limitations on the use of solitary for federal offenders.
Ending solitary confinement “should be as high as possible” on the list of priorities for criminal justice reform, said Johnny Perez, the U.S. Prison Program Director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Perez went to prison at the age of 21 and spent 13 years in various New York City and State facilities, with three of those years in solitary confinement.
Perez, who is Spanish speaking, helped a fellow inmate who did not understand English with his legal paperwork, and for that he was thrust into solitary confinement for 60 days.
“I’m constantly surprised by the mistaken ideas of who is in solitary,” he said.
While some may assume it’s used for those who are the most uncontrollably violent, Sandoval confirmed that the offenses that earn an inmate a stay in solitary include failure to make a bed, having too many envelopes in the cell, or trying to make loops in your pants so they won’t fall down.
“It befuddles the conscience that this is what we’re going through,” said Zerwas, who pointed out that if he, an elected official with state committee oversight of Health and Human Services, had “zero exposure” to how the prisons in his state were wielding solitary confinement before he read a newspaper story, then it could only be imagined how difficult it was for the public to get this information.
Journalists attending the conference said that their Freedom of Information requests often go nowhere. Those reporters who manage to interview people who’ve been in solitary confinement once they’re returned to the general population fear they’re setting up their sources for retaliation from prison staff.
The fact that the most vulnerable populations—those with mental illnesses and disabilities—are disproportionately the ones kept in solitary for long periods of time, is causing particular anguish among reformers.
“We are using solitary confinement to isolate and push aside the mentally ill,” said Zerwas.
People of color were also disproportionately the ones in solitary confinement, the panelists confirmed.
Levin said that in Texas “a lot of Mexican-Americans go right into solitary confinement as suspected gang members,” with no due process to make a case that they aren’t in those gangs.
Not all states are fiercely opposed to reform. Colorado and Maine were commended for having more enlightened prison authorities. And the conference attendees learned of impressive progress made in North Dakota from the keynote speaker, Leann Bertsch, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators and director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Realizing that “the more people are put in segregation, the more people will end up acting in ways that require segregation,” North Dakota prison officials, “exhausted and discouraged,” put into place new programs that relied on behavior management, increase in treatment and more frequent assessments, Bertsch said.
A prison that had 100 people in solitary confinement in 2015 confined only 24 people as of this month.
Bertsch said that while there was a “perception” among some prison staff that, following the reforms, their security was being “compromised,” no proof of that existed.
She acknowledged that North Dakota’s prison population is small in comparison to other states, and some large, crowded systems under strain could feel “hard pressed” to make changes.
In a second panel, “The Brain and Body in Solitary Confinement,” three medical experts on solitary confinement painted a harrowing picture of what isolation and sensory deprivation does to the human brain and body.
“This is about stories locked in boxes struggling to get free,” said Dr. Brie Williams, criminal justice and health program director and professor at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, describing the many inmates who physically suffer in isolation, their tragedies unknown to the public.
“It’s unassailable that solitary confinement causes psychiatric harm,” said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard Medical School physician and researcher who was credited with having identified a syndrome that solitary triggers in many people, with agitation, confusion, paranoia, and delusions.
(Dr. Grassian said in fact that the syndrome had been identified a century earlier during studies of the effects of solitary confinement, and was further defined by researchers who examined the effects of long-term sensory deprivation among U.S. prisoners during the Korean War.)
Earlier, Johnny Perez confirmed that long after his release from prison he still suffers from lingering nightmares, and has problems with handling the sound of keys or heels on a hard floor.
Dr. Grassian said that solitary confinement can cause psychosis in people who did not have it before being isolated, and sometimes they do not recover.
“The harm starts immediately,” he said. “A few hours can cause delirium.”
The most common long-term effect is an inability to withstand sensory stimulation. Horribly, people often seek to re-create the conditions of the small, windowless cell after release from prison.
PTSD is seen in many who go through it.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, staff doctors and nurses who work in prisons end up with “dual loyalties,” sometimes not giving the best medical care to those in solitary confinement because they report to the administrators of these para-military structures.
A cane won’t be prescribed by a doctor because he or she is told it could be weaponized, for example; or an asthma inhaler is denied because it supposedly could be a ruse to get handcuff restrictions relaxed. Even complaints of not being able to breathe are ignored.
“The health service and security service wrap around each other,” said Dr. Homer Venters, former chief of health services in the New York City jail system and now programs director of Physicians for Human Rights.
Dr. Williams said that solitary confinement creates “ubiquitously unhealthy” conditions that cause chronic disease and worsen existing diseases. Dementia is a critical issue in the aging populations, and these inmates violate the rules that lead to solitary.
Dr. Grassian had researched solitary confinement as part of a lawsuit in which he was asked to assess the psychiatric states of the prisoners. He said he was deeply shaken to find people who “were really sick and in a similar way.”
Moreover, he found in his library research “enormous literature” about the detrimental effects of solitary confinement when it was widely used in the 19th century. Well over a century ago, doctors saw the same things that Dr. Grassian did.
The fact that a large number of corrections systems in the U.S. continue the practice should disturb all Americans, Dr. Grassian said.
“In America we were once a city on a hill,” he said. “Not a society of punishment and control.”
The conference continued Friday with discussions by leading judges and representatives from correctional guards unions.
Information about the conference and speakers is available here.
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor (Digital Services) of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.