Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A groundbreaking court settlement will drastically change prison practices in New York—and get more than 1,000 inmates out of the hole.
These six bars from the often-incarcerated Yonkers rapper DMX, from his song “Who We Be,” are perhaps the must succinct verses ever written about solitary confinement:
The two years in a box, revenge, the plots
The twenty-three hours that's locked, the one hour that's not
The silence, the dark, the mind, so fragile
The wish that the streets would have took you when they had you
The days, the months, the years, despair
One night on my knees, here it comes, the prayer
Still, even DMX, who’s no stranger to solitary confinement, could never capture in words all of the horrors of being trapped in those tiny cells. But far fewer inmates will have to suffer this punishment in New York prisons now, thanks to a 2012 lawsuit won by the New York Civil Liberties Union. That lawsuit has led to new prison reforms announced Wednesday by the NYCLU, including a system-wide overhaul of its use of solitary confinement. This will also free roughly 1,100 from the isolation chambers where they are currently held.
“Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a press statement.
Of the 1,100 inmates who’ll immediately benefit from this deal, 175 were placed there for minor offenses, 163 need drug treatment, 64 are developmentally disabled, and 22 are juveniles, according to a NYCLU fact sheet. These inmates fit the typical profile of those boxed away in some form while incarcerated across the nation. A report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in October found that 29 percent of prison inmates and 22 percent of jail inmates with “serious psychological distress” had been subjected to solitary confinement between 2011 and 2012. Also, younger inmates, as well as those identifying as LGBTQ, were more likely to have been confined away than older and heterosexual inmates.
Under the terms of the NYCLU lawsuit, which will cost nearly $62 million to implement, prisoners will no longer get thrown in the hole for single violations of drug offenses. Correctional officers also must try other alternatives, like counseling or denying certain privileges, before placing an inmate in solitary. There is also now a cap on the number of days someone can be placed in isolation: Three months for most crimes, and 30 days for minor offenses.
Before this, many inmates languished for years in solitary confinement, even if they hadn’t been convicted of any crimes. Kalief Browder had been held as a teenager at the notorious Rikers Island for years—a significant chunk of that in solitary confinement—while suffering repeated violent clashes with other prisoners and guards. He was awaiting trial for a crime he insisted he didn’t commit and was released after serving over a thousand days when prosecutors failed to bring a case against him. As Jennifer Gonnerman wrote in her profile of his ordeals in The New Yorker, Browder came out in a much less mentally and emotionally stable state than when he went in, and ultimately committed suicide.
Of the inmates surveyed by BJS for its 2011-12 study on “restrictive housing”:
- 31 percent of prison inmates and 25 percent of jail inmates had stayed overnight in a hospital or other facility during the 12 months prior to their admission for mental health problems;
- 26 percent of prison inmates and 23 percent of jail inmates were taking prescription medicine for mental health problems at the time of the current offense;
- 26 percent of prison inmates and 23 percent of jail inmates had ever received counseling or therapy from a trained professional—such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or nurse—for mental health problems.
The NYCLU lawsuit establishes universal access to mental health services and rehabilitative counselors for those in solitary confinement in New York prisons. Those inmates will also, for the first time ever, now have telephone privileges.
“For more than 100 years, it has been shown that extreme isolation causes serious harm while accomplishing little if any of the goals of a rational corrections system,” said Alex Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who served as co-counsel on the suit. The agreements, if signed into approval by a court judge, will send the message that New York prisons are beginning to understand that.