Solitary Confinement in the Middle of New York City

As we observed International Human Rights Day on Saturday, we needed look no further than New York City for a sobering reminder of how this nation too often fails to meet international human rights standards.

Sadly, we learned recently that the New York City Department of Corrections (NYCDOC) is dramatically expanding the use of solitary confinement in its jails on Rikers Island. This development flies in the face of long-recognized evidence that solitary confinement has devastating effects on the human psyche. International human rights bodies, such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Committee Against Torture, have determined that the practice may violate international human rights law.

Rikers Island is home to 10 jails, the majority of which house pre-trial detainees — that is, individuals who have yet to be convicted of a crime. The average daily population of Rikers is 12,700 people and once the expansion of solitary confinement is complete, 990 individuals — approximately eight percent of the Rikers population — will be put in isolation, confined to a cell with no human contact for 23 hours a day.

The NYCDOC’s decision comes on the heels of a recent visit to New York by Juan Mendez, the U.N.’s special expert on torture. Standing just five miles from Rikers Island, Mendez addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the human rights implications of solitary confinement. He recommended its use only in “very exceptional circumstances, for as short a time as possible.” He said solitary confinement in excess of 15 days can amount to a human rights violation and should be prohibited. Notably, Mendez called on states to abolish the use of solitary confinement for pre-trial detainees, juveniles and individuals with mental disabilities — populations particularly vulnerable to the detrimental effects of prolonged isolation.

Rikers Island houses over 800 juveniles and an alarming one-third of Rikers inmates suffer from mental illness. While healthy individuals find it difficult to cope with solitary confinement, conditions of prolonged isolation ravage those suffering from pre-existing mental illness. These individuals, who typically don’t have access to adequate mental health treatment while on 23-hour-a-day lockdown, often deteriorate tragically — even to the point of suicide. Nevertheless, Rikers has dedicated two solitary confinement wings to housing individuals with mental illness.

The situation on Rikers Island is particularly perplexing given that in 2008 the New York State Legislature passed the Special Housing Unit (SHU) Exclusion Law, which requires the removal of state prisoners with serious mental illness from solitary confinement. The law drew explicitly from reforms mental health advocates achieved after years of litigation, as well as from extensive lobbying by Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC) — a coalition of advocates, family members of incarcerated individuals and ex-offenders. MHASC has recently focused on addressing the prevalence of individuals with mental illness in New York City jails.

While the situation at Rikers is somewhat aberrational — a growing number of states are studying the effects of solitary confinement and reducing the number of individuals held in such conditions — it is also emblematic of the routine use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the country. The United States holds an estimated 25,000 prisoners in solitary confinement at any given time, a number unmatched by any other democracy. In New York alone, even after passage of the SHU Exclusion Law, state correctional facilities house over 4,000 prisoners under conditions of prolonged isolation — a number the NYCLU and other advocates are fighting to reduce. Moreover, in many states including New York, prisoners may languish in solitary confinement for unfathomable lengths of time, sometimes for years on end.

If circumstances at Rikers prick the conscience, it is worth considering the extent to which we, as a nation, have normalized the inhumane practice of solitary confinement. Learn more about the ACLU’s work to stop solitary here.

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Tom Edgar

In Australia Solitary confinement as a punishment was abolished many years ago.

No self decent person could support this form of medieval torture.

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