91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New York Begins To Question Solitary Confinement As Default

Last in a three-part report on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Prison officials in New York last year reached a tentative settlement with the state's civil liberties union, agreeing to shelve a pending legal battle and instead collaborate on new rules that could sharply limit the time inmates spend in solitary confinement. And that could mean downsizing New York's network of isolation cells known as SHU units.

A lot of people praised the deal, but it angered Mike Powers.

"Our SHUs are not the dungeons that people portray them to be," Powers says.

Powers is a corrections officer, a sergeant and head of the state prison guard union. He says officers use solitary confinement strategically every day to maintain order and safety, especially in New York's often violent maximum security prisons. He says the threat of isolation is an important deterrent.

"I don't know how many times I've had an offender, an inmate, tell me that 'I'm not going back in there, Powers. You can count on that,' " he says.

This is the debate happening across the U.S. Many corrections officers see solitary confinement as a normal practice, relied on for decades.

'It Made Me Numb'

Reform advocates say isolation is used far too often. They point to the fact that many of the 4,500 inmates held in New York's isolation cells before last year's agreement were teenagers, pregnant women and inmates who committed minor infractions.

"Five out of six offenses that lead people into solitary are for nonviolent ticket infractions, like excessive bearding or having too many stamps," says Five Mualimm-ak, now a reform activist, who spent 11 years behind bars on weapons charges, including five years in solitary. The figures come from a New York Civil Liberties report released in 2012.

"Socially, it made me numb. I felt like I was stripped of all the skills I was used to using on a human-being level," Mualimm-ak says.

Solitary confinement is getting a second look from politicians as part of a general shift away from tough crime policies and because studies show isolation can harm inmates' mental health and lead to more crime once they're released. In a statement, New York's acting corrections commissioner, Anthony Annucci, said the reform effort here will make prisons "more humane."

But with details of New York's new policy still being hashed out, Soffiyah Elijah with a pro-reform group called the Correctional Association worries that opposition from prison guards will block significant change.

"It's the No. 1 hurdle because they are on the front line, they're given amazing discretion to abusively use the ability to put somebody in solitary confinement, and it's their default mechanism," Elijah says.

That distrust between reformers and corrections officers has been building for years. But there has been progress. New York's Corrections Department has already sharply cut the number of 16- and 17-year-olds held in solitary. And there are signs that some front-line prison workers and administrators are willing to try alternatives.

"In terms of using it as a punishment for the sake of punishing, I'm not really sure it's that effective," says Jean King, former deputy supervisor at New York's Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

Before retiring last year, King sent a lot of inmates to solitary, but she now thinks minor infractions should be treated differently.

"Somebody smokes marijuana, comes back with dirty urine. Does it really pay to put him up in solitary for 90 days? Would it not be better to force him into a substance abuse treatment at that point?" King asks.

With tens of thousands of inmates held in solitary across the U.S., this effort to change New York's prison culture is being watched closely, in part to see whether more corrections officers will buy in.

Taylor Pendergrass with the New York Civil Liberties Union says if new policies are going to work, guards will need more support and training and also better alternatives to solitary, including drug counseling and conflict resolution programs.

"The solution is not about preventing corrections staff from making decisions. It's about making those decisions much more carefully, as opposed to just locking the person up in a solitary cell for many years," Pendergrass says.

Final details of New York's solitary confinement rules will be negotiated over the next three months, with corrections officers expected to play a major role in the closed-door talks.

Copyright 2015 NCPR

Corrected: August 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story included a photo of Rikers Island, a facility run by the city of New York. The photo has been removed because the jail is not associated with the statewide changes affecting solitary confinement.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.