What Solitary Confinement Can Tell Us About Prison

Yesterday I wrote a post about Ismael Nazario who spent 300 days in solitary confinement at Riker’s before turning 18. In 2014, Riker’s made a rather dramatic shift in policy and decided to stop putting people under the age of 18 in solitary confinement altogether. Nazario spoke with NPR about his experience in solitary confinement, the effects of being locked in a 6-by-8-foot cell for 23 hours per day.

Solitary confinement is prison-within-prison. It’s the punishment of last resort in a setting where there are so few ways to make life worse that the inhumanity of maximum confinement and sensory and social deprivation seems like a reasonable incremental step. But it is used far more liberally than you might imagine. For a fist-fight, possession of contraband, or getting a prison tattoo, it’s not uncommon for prisoners to be thrown in solitary confinement for thirty, sixty, or a hundred days.

It’s great that New York City has made the decision not to use solitary confinement for adolescents, but while young people do have unique psychological needs, the use of solitary is torture for prisoners of all ages. The egregious over-use of solitary confinement at prisons and jails in New York and nationwide sends a message, if you’re willing to listen: when prison is so horrible that only solitary confinement is noticeably worse, the problem won’t be solved by more punishment.

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