Welcome news this morning from our city’s dysfunctional prison-industrial complex: New York City officials announced a plan that would eliminate solitary confinement for all inmates age 21 and under. This comes less than a month after federal prosecutors made known their intent to sue Rikers Island over civil rights violations connected to the treatment of adolescent prisoners, and less than five months after City Council passed a law boosting oversight over the use of solitary confinement at the city’s main jail complex. Is reform finally coming to Rikers?
Solitary confinement, also known at Rikers as punitive segregation (!), is pretty terrible. Inmates who violate prison rules are locked away in small cells for 23 hours per day (one hour is given to “recreation time,” which is spent is spent outside, in a small cage, shackled). They are denied human contact except for brief, minimal interactions with prison guards (not known, especially at Rikers, to be the friendliest lot). Some offenders spent months in solitary.
Many studies have demonstrated the damaging effects of solitary confinement, particularly on the mind, and particularly on the young adult mind. The psychological effects are often grouped under the name Special Housing Unit Syndrome, or SHU Syndrome. Symptoms include: hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia and paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, distortions of time and perception, increased risk of suicide, and PTSD. An expert witness in a recent lawsuit over California’s solitary confinement practices testified that while prisoners in isolation account for just five percent of California’s total prison population, they total nearly half of its suicides.
These reforms at Rikers come in the wake of a damning August report from the federal government which found a “deep-seated culture of violence” against adolescent inmates at Rikers Island, enacted by guards shielded by lax oversight and a code of silence. That report made headlines for graphically detailing the “staggering” number of bodily injuries among youthful inmates at the prison, but it also found that the prison relied to an “excessive and inappropriate” degree on solitary confinement as a form of punishment. At the press conference to announce the report, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said that “for adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken.”
The policy change announced this morning was approved 7 to 0 by the city’s Board of Correction. It won’t go into effect until next January, and is contingent on “obtaining financing for additional officers and clinical staff members,” according to the New York Times. For prison reformists, the next step is to limit the use of solitary confinement more broadly, a change Mayor de Blasio—who perhaps needs the support of the powerful correction officers union more now than ever—has so far resisted.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.