Though it is good to have oversight and changes if needed, as this editorial from the New York Times notes, its use is vital within prisons.
The state of New York State took a big step toward a more humane prison policy this week when it agreed to new rules that would reduce the number of prison inmates sentenced to solitary confinement as well as the maximum time they could be held there.
The agreement, the result of a 2012 lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, reflects a growing realization that solitary confinement is a form of torture that inflicts psychological damage on even healthy people and increases the likelihood of suicide among those with mental illnesses. The isolation is so debilitating that inmates call it the “living death.”
A 2012 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that the use of isolation in New York’s state prisons was “arbitrary and unjustified” and that it was disproportionately used against black inmates. The study found that extreme isolation stoked anxiety, depression, despair and rage — and had adverse effects on both the prisoners and the corrections officers who worked in the isolation unit.
In New York’s system, about 4,000 inmates are locked in 6-foot-by-10-foot cells 23 hours a day, sometimes for years, with little human contact and no access to rehabilitative programs. The new agreement is expected to cut the number of people in solitary by at least 25 percent and will give prisoners privileges like phone calls and group recreation.
The lawsuit grew out of a complaint filed by Leroy Peoples, an inmate who spent 780 days in a tiny cell the size of an elevator (with another prisoner) at Upstate Correctional Facility, near the Canadian border. Mr. Peoples was sent to confinement not for something violent like assaulting a guard but for filing what prison officials described as false legal documents that created a lien against prosecutors.
Under the old rules, inmates could be sent to solitary for a host of petty reasons — for being “untidy,” for not reporting illnesses to the staff, for possessing unauthorized books or for providing other inmates with “unauthorized legal assistance.” Those arrangements gave guards great leeway to inflict punishment in an arbitrary and even racially discriminatory manner.
The new policy goes a long way toward changing that. Nearly half of the 87 rule violations that are punishable by solitary will no longer allow the sentence to be imposed for first-time violations. And certain petty violations will no longer carry solitary confinement sanctions at all.