Damaging the mental health of prisoners will not make our society safer

“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” concluded Juan E. Méndez in a special United Nations report on torture.

That report was issued more than seven years ago, in October 2011. It called for an end to solitary confinement in pre-trial detention based solely on the seriousness of the alleged offence, as well as a complete ban on its use for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

The report cited scientific studies that have established lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation and also said that solitary confinement is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.

Five years later, President Barack Obama, as part of his push for criminal-justice reform, announced a ban in federal prison on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders.

“Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior,” wrote Obama, explaining the ban in a January 2016 op-ed piece in The Washington Post. “Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

“The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.”

Obama hoped his federal reforms would be a model for states.

Weeks before Obama’s announcement, New York State had reached a five-year, $62 million settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union in which it pledged to significantly cut the number of prisoners in solitary confinement as well as the maximum time they could stay there.

“New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman at the time of the settlement.

Also in 2015, the New York City Board of Correction adopted a regulation banning solitary confinement for detainees in New York City younger than 22.

While the nation and the state are headed in the right direction in banning the torture of solitary confinement for youth, there is a gaping hole — the practices of county jails.

This was brought home to us in a suit filed late last month against Albany County by four young men, transferred from jail on Rikers Island in New York City to Albany County’s jail while awaiting trial. Their suit alleges that, upon their arrival in Albany County, they and other detainees are brutally assaulted and then forced to live in solitary confinement for months on end. The suit alleges the city is circumventing its ban by sending “undesirable” detainees to Albany County.

After an initial assault on arriving in Albany County, Rikers detainees, the suit claims, “spend their remaining time at the Albany County Jail in solitary confinement,” each one in a cell that is typically 6 by 8 feet.

“They are in their cells by themselves for a minimum of 23 hours a day, with no meaningful social interaction, environmental stimulation, or human contact,” the suit says; they are offered one hour of “recreation” by themselves in an indoor cage, which most decline “because the cage is functionally indistinguishable from their cells.”

These, of course, are allegations, not proven truths. The case will have to go to trial for the truth to come out.

But what this suit makes clear is that many counties in New York State have no ban on solitary confinement for youths.

They should.

The suit cites the American Psychiatric Association’s stance that solitary confinement is associated with increased risk of self-mutilation and suicidal ideation, greater anxiety, depression and paranoia, and that the risks are particularly acute for young people.

This echos the United Nations report of seven years ago, and the federal findings of two years ago.

Four years ago, the suit notes, the federal Department of Justice issued a report on conditions at Rikers that stated the city improperly relied on solitary confinement as a tool to manage adolescent detainees, “expos[ing] them to risk of serious harm” and raising serious constitutional concerns. The report said that disruptive and unstable detainees became more disruptive and unstable when they were put in solitary confinement, isolated from social support and necessary services, and given little incentive to improve behavior.

So not only is solitary confinement bad for the person being isolated, it is also bad for the prison system. Detainees that are presumably being controlled for being disruptive become more disruptive after being isolated.

Several bills have been proposed in the state legislature in recent years — one is a New York State Senate bill called Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would create “alternative therapeutic and rehabilitative confinement options” instead.

We urge our leaders to pass a law that would make it impossible for a detained youth anywhere in the state to be placed in solitary confinement. Science has shown the human brain is not fully formed until someone reaches his or her mid-20s. To keep a youth isolated from human contact is, as the U.N. report said, torture. Our government should not be in the business of torture — not here in Albany County or anywhere else in New York State.

Jails and prisons can be places where people improve if they are given the chance. This is good for all of us because, instead of ending up back in jail, people who have served their time become productive members of society. Our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, recently wrote of two people who used prison to turn their lives around.

Jennifer Nickel, who has just opened a yoga studio in town, said that, in prison, she learned to take responsibility for her actions — she had taken things that didn’t belong to her.

She had been angry, during her first couple of years of incarceration. “I was so angry, I felt like it was everybody’s fault — my dad for leaving me when I was 2, the doctors for prescribing all these drugs, the judge for putting me away,” she said.

It was “a spiritual gut punch” when she realized, about halfway through her five-year sentence, that prison probably saved her life. Before, she had been living dual lives, she said, her addiction not apparent to the many people who thought she was functioning just fine.

She earned an associate’s degree in prison and she opened her yoga studio on the eighth anniversary of her sobriety and now strives to help others.

Floyd Mair also wrote about Jay Coleman who snatched a purse with $18 in it and then spent 25 years in prison. He’s dying now of liver cancer, having not been treated for hepatitis while incarcerated, but says, “ I’m proud that I survived, and that I helped others survive.”

Indeed, Coleman started a program where he mentored people going to prison on how to survive and thrive there. He worked for a decade with the New York State Defenders Association on the pioneering program, stopping only when his illness prevented him from carrying on.

Coleman taught people heading into prison what he called “the mantra,” which is that they need to plan on coming out of prison “10 times smarter and 10 times stronger.”

That won’t work for someone shut off alone for 23 hours a day or more every single day for days on end. We all need hope.

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