Oct 30, 2019 – Maybe New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has been working with dishonest people for so long it’s lost sight of what the truth is. Clearly, something is amiss when DOCCS promises to reduce solitary confinement but instead turns out to be isolating more prisoners than ever.
DOCCS will no doubt protest such a characterization and insist that what it calls “keeplock” today is different from the solitary confinement of the past. Whereas inmates in solitary are locked up in cells for up to 23 hours a day in separate “special housing units,” those in keeplock are confined for up to 23 hours a day in cells in the general prison population. Some reform.
And where DOCCS made a show of reducing the number of offenses for which prisoners could be isolated by one-fourth, it actually has more prisoners in isolation, between SHUs and keeplock, than it did four years ago. It logged 38,248 instances of isolating prisoners in 2018 compared with 37,600 in 2015, an increase of almost 650 cases.
These practices, detailed in a new report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, confirm one thing that has been long apparent with DOCCS: It can’t be relied on to make an honest effort to transform New York’s prison system from one of punishment to one of rehabilitation. That’s going to take a state Legislature to drag DOCCS into at least the late 20th century, if not the 21st.
The Legislature this past session did consider a bill to reform the use of solitary confinement in both state prisons and local jails. The Humane Alternatives to Long-term Confinement Act would cap, within a year, all forms of isolation at 15 days — beyond which the United Nations considers it torture. DOCCS, though, prefers to phase in a 30-day limit over three years. Currently, the average is more than 100 days.
HALT would also limit how often prisoners could be put in segregated confinement, require isolated prisoners to be allowed out of their cell for longer periods of time, and ban the practice for disabled people.
This is not about a Pollyannaish dream of a warm and fuzzy prison system. Studies on isolation have found that people subjected to it rapidly experience mental and physical deterioration, a heightened sense of anxiety, paranoia and a reduced ability to interact. DOCCS may find it convenient, but it is counterproductive, and more likely to produce people even less equipped to function in society when they come out than when they went in. That’s not rehabilitation.
When the Legislature returns in January, the HALT Act should be high on its list of priorities. New York’s jails and prisons should not be making people worse.