The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Problems of Solitary Confinement

Inmate of the Topo Chico prison,Mexico September 28, 2019. (Daniel Becerril/Reuters)

There was a protest today at Gracie Manor in New York City calling for an end to the use of solitary confinement as a punishment in New York City jails. Advocates are calling for reforms that would restrict the use of solitary confinement, permitting its use only as a limited safety measure rather than a punitive measure that can extend for months (or years) on end. The precipitating event here was the death of a young woman who was put into solitary confinement and deprived of the anti-seizure medication she took, but objections to punitive solitary confinement are longstanding. Senator Bernie Sanders describes the practice as “torture,” and he is not wrong to do so. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio remains unconvinced and argues, not unreasonably, that the case for abolishing solitary confinement oversimplifies safety concerns. But that is a practical operational question that can be solved.

New York City’s jails are a national scandal. In 2014, a homeless veteran was roasted to death at Rikers Island, his entirely preventable death a product of ineptitude, indifference, and corruption in the city’s jail system. Other horrifying abuses have been chronicled in the New York Times’s excellent reporting on Rikers and other city jails.

The lasting psychological effects of extended periods of solitary confinement are not widely understood and rarely are part of the discussion of criminal-justice reform. That is an error that should be remedied. This congressional testimony makes for worthwhile reading.

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