Safety and Segregation: The uneasy relationship between violence and solitary confinement

A bizarre development out of New York has prisoners’ and human rights activists scratching their heads this week. It’s best summed up by The Nation’s headline for an article discussing the matter: “Rikers is Reforming Solitary Confinement—With More Solitary Confinement?”  There’s little question as to Rikers infamy as a penal institution. Despite decreasing the number of inmates, and increasing the amount of money going into it, violence continues to plague the prison. 

Like so many before him, Mayor Bill Bilasio claimed enhanced solitary was necessary to reduce violence at Rikers. But are the prisoners at Rikers inherently more violent than those at the hundreds of other maximum security facilities in the country? The facility is, indeed, among the most infamous in the country—but rather than engaging in an evidence-based analysis of how best to deal with mounting violence, Commissioner Ponte chose the path of least resistance. Ironically, they cited statistics on Rikers’ levels of violence, but yet did not engage in any kind of examination of evidence-based data on how best to deal with this violence, or what its root causes are. In the absence of evidence-based research and analysis, they’ve chosen simply to rename what Amnesty International refers to as a torturous practice, with the creation of “Enhanced Supervision Housing Units” (ESHU). Those in the facilities are afforded 7 hours a day out of their cells (as opposed to the normal 14 for Rikers’ general population inmates). But according to inmates who spent time in ESHUs, the frequent lock-downs meant that even that 7-hour period was often whittled down to nothing. Simply stating that your version of solitary confinement is rehabilitative rather than punitive, does not make it so. A rose by any other name, and all that…at the end of the day, segregation stinks as a prison policy, no matter what rosy terms you couch it in. Violence in ESHU is high, with prisoners reporting their time in these facilities as being far worse than anything they’ve experienced elsewhere (including “punitive” solitary).  Time spent in SHUs also means that prisoners are unable to avail themselves of services that are critical to rehabilitation and ultimately, re-entry. This may include contact/communication with family, education or training programs, and simply interacting with other human beings.

So how is isolation anything but punitive in nature? The introduction to an article out of New Jersey on solitary confinement for immigrants highlights precisely what is wrong with how the discussion is being framed: “Is solitary confinement a fair punishment for immigrant detainees? If so, is it regulated properly?” The writer has fallen into the same trap so many do, failing to recognize that being in prison is the punishment. Prison officials are not there to mete out punishment, they are there to supervise the prisoner’s term there. And as long as we keep framing the issue incorrectly, the answers are going to fail prisoners and fail society.

What was most shocking about the move, was that the creation of ESHUs was actually included into the city’s solitary confinement reform package.  By including it in the package, individuals who were staunchly against solitary confinement were forced to vote for ESH, simply in an effort to remove solitary for individuals under the age of 21. ESHUs exist in a sort of regulatory vacuum; inmates can be held indefinitely in these facilities because they are not considered “solitary.” But if it quacks like a duck… But as of last week, it appears the DOC is abandoning any pretences of being dedicated to ending the practice of punitive confinement; they have asked the ability to hold some individuals “indefinitely in solitary confinement with no mandatory break” in certain cases. 

The arguments in support of solitary confinement tend to boil down to two main camps: 1-It’s to protect staff and inmates from violent prisoners; 2-It’s to protect vulnerable prisoners from the violence of others. Clearly, there’s a theme here, and it boils down to a singular argument: solitary confinement reduces violence. So let’s look at this more closely.

While we’ve written much about the experience of transgender men and women in prison as it relates to solitary confinement, a recent Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that a shocking number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual prisoners are also spending time in Special Housing Units (SHUs). The “restrictive housing” of LGB prisoners occurs at a rate nearly twice as high as non-LGB individuals. In the bulk of these cases, confinement is considered “protective.” What results from increased isolation? A dramatic increase in mental health problems stemming from: insomnia; paranoia; auditory and visual hallucinations; hypersensitivity; suicidal tendencies; and PTSD. American prisoners are being used as guinea pigs in the effects of social and sensory deprivation. Yet we already know what effects these practices have; this kind of isolation drives even mentally healthy to the brink. While isolated, their access to medical and mental health services is also restricted, so there is no recourse available to them to deal with these issues, or any physical ailments resulting from, or exacerbated by, confinement (knee, back, and joint problems are common). 

When power is wielded like a weapon, how is it anyone is surprised that violence is the result? It’s like the prison version of a “time out.” Unwanted behaviour=isolation. But segregation does not elicit a Pavlovian response in humans, whereby individuals instantly equate their isolation from interaction with negativity. There is no deterrence effect associated with segregation. Indeed, isolation tends to breed resentment, which in turn, breeds violence. 

So if solitary confinement does nothing to improve prison safety or assist in rehabilitation then what, precisely, are we doing it for? When a prison has to rely on solitary confinement, it is a reflection on an institution that is failing, not on its prisoners. It is about breaking wills, about breaking down individuals to the point where rehabilitation is all but impossible, and recidivism a virtual guarantee.