The issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has lately received prominent coverage in the New York Times. First, a front page article ran on March 10 with the (somewhat overly optimistic) title “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity.” The article touched on the troubled history and harmful effects of solitary confinement, and focused on successful efforts by a handful of states–most prominently Mississippi–to reduce their use of prison isolation.

Five days later, a strongly worded Times editorial called “The Abuse of Solitary Confinement” denounced the practice as “counterproductive” and as “futile and cruel.” It, too, held up the example of Mississippi, and noted that “Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio and Washington are working to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary, and other states are considering making this shift. But others remain blind to the evidence.”

Both are comprehensive and powerful pieces, and both emphasize the harm multiple harms caused by solitary confinement, and the benefits found in reducing its use. (Though they arguably give too much credit to Mississippi corrections officials, rather than to the prisoners, the ACLU, and other advocates whose lawsuit forced their hand). Together, they no doubt brought this issue to the attention of tens of thousands of readers who had previously given it little thought.

Conspicuously absent from both the article and the editorial, however, was any mention of the gross overuse of prison isolation that is taking place on the New York Times‘s own patch. According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, some 4,500 prisoner are in some form of isolated confinement in the state’s prisons. This consists of approximately 8 percent of its total prison population, and is more than twice the national average. In New York City, the rate is, if anything, even higher: On Rikers Island, which is dramatically expanding its use of solitary confinement, there are now nearly a thousand isolation cells, some of them specifically designated for juveniles and people with mental illness.

In response to this omission, John Boston and Sarah Kerr of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, which was published on March 13 under the heading “How New York Practices Solitary Confinement“:

“Rethinking Solitary Confinement” (front page, March 11) reports on the Mississippi prisons’ drastic reduction in the use of solitary confinement. Similar successful efforts are under way in other states, including Maine and Colorado.

In contrast, New York City is going backward: the Department of Correction is carrying out a drastic increase in solitary confinement cells (pretrial detainees held in 23-hour lock-in, with only an hour a day for exercise and showers).

The jail population has been falling for years, yet the department plans an expansion that will give New York City one of the highest rates of punitive segregation in the country.

New York City’s jails — notoriously chaotic, unruly and brutal — need reform, but simply locking up more and more prisoners is not the solution. New York should follow Mississippi’s lead.

A response appeared in the Times‘s letters column yesterday, from Dora B. Schriro, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, arguing that “This city’s Department of Correction is exceptionally well run. Its policies are progressive and highly effective.” As for the use of punitive segregation, Schriro states: “When an inmate seriously injures another inmate or assaults a correction officer in jail, there are consequences, just as there are consequences when an individual breaks the law in the community and is arrested by the police and sent to jail by the court.” She does not mention that sentences in “the Bing” are often doled out for nonviolent offenses, or that prisoners receive these sentences without the benefit of due process.

In response to the abuse of isolated confinement in New York, former prisoners, family members, and advocates have organized two coalitions–one focusing on New York State prisons and the other on New York City jails. (Both welcome new members at their ongoing meetings–click on links for contact information.) Keep an eye on Solitary Watch for more reporting on this subject in the near future.

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