This week, 2,000 inmates at a private prison in Texas started a riot. Although no one actually escaped, prisoners set fires and made the facility temporarily uninhabitable, garnering national headlines in the process.
Of course, escape was never the point; these men were rioting as part of a last-gasp effort to draw attention to what they describe as brutally inadequate healthcare provided by Willacy County Correctional Center. But while the fires at Willacy may have gone out, the reality is our criminal justice system went up in flames years ago. Broken, mired in bureaucracy and resistant to change, one of the system’s most worrying problems remains its overuse of solitary confinement. On any given day, there are more than 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in our country.
I should know, I’ve been there.
In 2010, while enrolled at Cornell University, I was arrested in possession of a large amount of heroin. I’d been using drugs, selling to support my habit, and doing many things I deeply regretted. After my arrest, I was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in state prison, where I quickly came to learn all about the prison system and its many flaws, for better or worse.
Spending 23 hours a day in a neon-white cell with no clock, I quickly lost sense of time. I faded in and out of reality, sometimes unsure if I was waking or dreaming. I cried. I talked to myself. I banged my head against the wall. Four years later, I still have nightmares.
And I was only in solitary confinement for a matter of days. In the United States, we routinely keep people in solitary confinement for months, even years.
In New York state prisons, the average solitary confinement sentence is five months. In Colorado, it’s 18 months. Sentence ranges can rise even higher if isolation is deemed necessary for security reasons, or to protect an inmate from herself. Thus, in Texas, the average administrative segregation stay—often used for inmates deemed a risk to their peers or guards—is more than four years, while in California, the average Security Housing Unit (SHU) sentence is almost seven years. In some extreme cases, people spend decades in solitary confinement. This means decades spent confined to a room like mine, with no clock and no color and no contact with the outside world. It’s not surprising an increasing number of people, from psychologists to the United Nations to former inmates like me have noted that such isolation is tantamount to a form of psychological torture for human beings.
Logically, you might assume that everyone in solitary must have done something really bad, probably shanked a guard or raped another inmate. But you would be wrong. In New York state, five out of six inmates in solitary confinement are there for non-violent rules violations.
Those violations can be shockingly trivial.
When I was in solitary, the reasons for my isolation were never specified. I witnessed prisoners get thrown in solitary for everything from name calling, to wearing pajamas during the day, to misplaced suspicions of wrongdoing. Nationwide, there are accounts of inmates being sentenced to solitary confinement for everything from sleeping through a meal, to being in possession of too many postage stamps, to talking back to guards, to collecting too many political publications. Recently, The New York Times reported on a man in South Carolina who was given 37.5 years in solitary confinement for posting on Facebook.
But there’s an even darker side to these policies. One woman I was incarcerated with was placed in solitary after reporting a sexual assault by a guard. And her situation is unfortunately all too common. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a report finding that “again and again” women were placed in solitary confinement for reporting rapes and sexual assaults.
Also problematic are the indications that solitary sentences are doled out differently depending on the ethnicity of the accused. In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) found that minorities were disproportionately represented in the state’s SHU population. While blacks make up 14.4 percent of the New York state population, and 49.5 percent of the New York state prison population, they make up 59 percent of SHU prisoners.
And it’s not just New York. In an analysis of 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data from eight federal facilities with supermax units, University of Michigan Law School professor Margo Schlanger found that non-white inmates were often overrepresented in these extreme isolation units.
Of course, not every inmate in solitary is there for excess stamps or missing meals, or even the racial biases of a prejudicial correctional officer. Some are there for legitimately scary violations, like assault or rape. For people like this, it might be tempting to view solitary as a just recourse. But in reality, the continued use of solitary confinement is making our society a less safe place. These strategies take damaged people and damages them even further. It may be easier to not care when those damaged individuals are safely locked behind bars, but ultimately the vast majority of inmates—95 percent of state prisoners—will eventually be released. If, during their incarceration, the state has spent its time damaging these women and men further, then they have completely undermined the public-safety goals that incarceration is generally believed to serve.
If there is a bright side to this problem, it’s the tireless efforts of reform advocates and journalists who are working to raise awareness of the problems associated with solitary confinement. In New Jersey, state senator Raymond Lesniak introduced a bill that would create a 15-day cap on the use of solitary confinement, except in a few special circumstances. Likewise, there is pending legislation in New York that would, among other things, require the state to offer therapeutic and rehabilitative programming to inmates held in isolation for more than 15 days.
These actions, if implemented, are steps in the right direction. But they are far from comprehensive. What about the prisoners languishing in solitary in California? In Texas? Or in any of the approximately 1,800 state and federal jails, plus the more than 3,000 local and county ones.
The hope, for now, is that if such measures pass in New York and New Jersey, other states will slowly start to follow suit. We have to start somewhere.