When Punishment Becomes Torture: Limiting Solitary Confinement in New York Prisons


Picasa 2.7

cdogsimmons via Wikicommons


cdogsimmons via Wikicommons
cdogsimmons via Wikicommons

Minors and pregnant women will no longer be submitted to solitary confinement as a form of punishment in New York State prisons, in accordance with a new policy enacted Feb. 19. My first question upon learning this was: why exactly were minors and pregnant women ever allowed to be in solitary confinement? While I am not sure I can answer that, I certainly believe that this decision will not only make prisons more humane places, but it is also a step towards having a prison system that actually fulfills its role of making New York a safer place. This change, the result of a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, secures New York’s position as the state with the largest prison system in the nation to forego solitary confinement for juveniles.

Now let’s be clear: punishment is an integral part of our prisons. Those convicted serve the sentence given to them by a legal system, whose job it is to determine guilt and appropriate punishment. It is not the prison staff’s job to deal out justice arbitrarily and determine who is allowed the right to have social contact and who isn’t. The result of solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool for the prison staff to implement at their discretion is that it is incredibly overused in many prison systems, sometimes as punishment for breaking minor jail rules. In an extreme case, an NPR article cites an inmate who revealed he was given extra time in solitary confinement when he “ate an apple incorrectly.” Solitary confinement isn’t reserved for those who commit violent acts; it is widely used for a variety of reasons, ranging from gang membership to ignoring commands and “need for protection.”

It is time to shift the focus from punishment to correction for the sake of everyone; it is more important to make sure inmates leave prison as better citizens than to make sure that prisoners get what we (or rather, the prison staff) feel they deserve. It is simple: causing further damage to prisoners benefits no one. Instead, it makes high-risk individuals more dangerous to themselves and others.

Solitary confinement is considered a disciplinary tool in prisons, however, there is enough evidence to claim that it is comparable to torture. As cited in a New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, John McCain stated from his experience as a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War that torture “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Let’s not forget that this is a man who was physically tortured and denied medical treatment for two broken arms and a broken leg. This view of solitary confinement is common among POWs from the Vietnam War, who, in a study, reported finding “social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.”

The effects of prolonged social isolation have been studied for decades, and they suggest that psychological damage is among the long-term consequences. A 1992 study on POWs from the former Yugoslavia revealed that the most severe brain abnormalities still apparent months after being released were found in prisoners who either suffered severe head trauma or were subject to solitary confinement.

With these studies in mind, it is worrisome that an estimated 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the U.S. today. These are men and women that will be released into society, and causing them such damage robs them of their mental health and the chance to lead a normal life after prison. Prisons are effectively extending their punishment way beyond prisoners’ sentences, which makes them more of a threat to society than when they arrived to prison in the first place. This is a dangerous cycle that needs to be broken. The money allocated to these expensive units for isolation could instead be used for initiatives that seek to reduce recidivism (relapse into criminal behavior), like education and rehabilitation programs.

The government’s job is to protect its citizens no matter what side of the prison walls they are found in. Causing psychological damage to inmates is simply inexcusable, especially when there is no substantial evidence to suggest that practices like solitary confinement are beneficial to anyone. Our logic when it comes to prison policies should be guided only by what truly benefits our society as a whole, and that is to make inmates better citizens who are less likely to commit crimes again upon their release.