The New York State Bar Association last week passed a resolution calling for a dramatic transformation and curtailment of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement it its state prisons and city jails. The strongly worded resolution, written by NYSBA’s Civil Rights Committee, cites “the damage caused by prolonged solitary confinement and the ability to ensure prison and public safety without resorting to its use.”It urges the New York State legislature to hold hearings on solitary confinement, and on Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the state and city departments of corrections to undertake sweeping changes in their prison practices.
After laying out the problem, the document presents the following resolution:
RESOLVED, that the New York State Bar Association calls upon the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and New York City Department of Correction (DOC) to profoundly restrict the use of long-term solitary confinement, by adopting clear and objective standards to ensure that prisoners are separated from the general prison population only in very limited and very legitimate circumstances and only for the briefest period and under the least restrictive conditions practicable.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the New York State Bar Association calls upon the Commissioners of DOCCS and DOC to adopt stringent criteria, protocols and safeguards for separating violent or vulnerable prisoners, including clear and objective standards to ensure that prisoners are separated only in limited and legitimate circumstances for the briefest period and under the least restrictive conditions practicable; and auditing the current population in extreme isolation to identify people who should not be in the SHU, transitioning them back to the general prison population, and reducing the number of SHU beds accordingly.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the New York State Bar Association urges the Governor of New York State, the Mayor of the City of New York and the Commissioners of DOCCS and DOC to take necessary steps to proscribe the imposition of long-term solitary confinement on persons in the custody of DOCCS and DOC beyond 15 days.
FURTHER RESOLVED, that the New York State Bar Association calls upon the State Legislature to hold public hearings to inquire into the harmful effects of long-term solitary confinement and to solicit both professional and academic commentary on the matter and comments from persons who have been placed in long-term solitary confinement, and to otherwise conduct these hearings in a manner that will best inform lawmakers and the public at large regarding the effects of long-term isolation.
An excellent report attached to the resolution takes as its epigraph a statement from a former prisoner at Guantanamo: “Please torture me in the old way … Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks.”
The report traces the history of solitary confinement both nationally and in New York State; documents the psychological and physical damage caused by isolation and its widespread abandonment by the international community; and notes that solitary is counterproductive to the goals of prisoner protection, discipline, rehabilitation, and reintegration.” It concludes:
Policy makers looking for guidance should first remember that “conditions of confinement that deprive prisoners of the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities” offend not just the conscience, but the U.S. Constitution. It should be kept in mind that these conditions can easily, perhaps even reliably, lead to legal exposure for prison administrators and state officials who choose to employ it without strict guidelines and significant restrictions on the length of time that inmates can be placed in solitary confinement. In every relevant way, long term solitary confinement is counter-productive to the legitimate penological interests of both state officials and prison administrators and to the public safety interests of the public at large.
In light of the foregoing, solitary confinement, if used at all, should be measured in days, not years, months, or even weeks, ensuring that all prisoners, regardless of their conditions of confinement, have some minimal measure of interactive activity so that their psyche does not begin to deteriorate. Preventing psychological harm to inmates encourages institutional safety, security and discipline by preventing the development of serious mental illnesses which exacerbate the problems that supermax and SHU-style detention are intended to solve. Abandoning long term solitary confinement alleviates these problems while ensuring that the health and dignity of prison inmates remains intact.