Following up on my post from yesterday, inmates in New York are suing the city Department of Corrections over its use of isolation:

A group of inmates who claim they were locked in their cells for their own protection for as many as 23 hours a day have sued the city Department of Correction to stop the practice, saying the isolation is cruel and violates jail regulations.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Marcy Friedman heard oral arguments in the case Thursday and said she would issue a decision in the next few weeks. Correctional experts say 23-hour isolation is common throughout the country, but research shows it can be psychologically harmful. Solitary confinement is often used as punishment to segregate troublemakers, but it’s also used to protect certain inmates.

"It’s a horrible, horrible thing to do to these people," said Michael Mushlin, a law professor at Pace Law School and a national expert on prisoners’ rights. "It shouldn’t be done even to bad people. It shouldn’t be done as punishment."

Mushlin said research has demonstrated the mental health consequences. "If they are being held this way for any amount of time — even for a day or so — you’re going to see a lot of mental pain," he said.

Department of Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn said he instituted the policy in 2005 to safeguard inmates who needed protection — such as a gang member who was a witness in a case or a detainee accused of attempting to kidnap a child, he said.

"Protective custody should be the safest place in the department," Horn said. The request by plaintiffs to end the policy would "make it the unsafest place," he added.

Hard to see how this is the most effective way of safeguarding inmates. Hard to see how reducing 23 hours of isolation to a more humane number would make protective custody "the unsafest place." Easy to see how isolation is a self-perpetuating tactic.

This from a New Yorker article, describing one inmate’s reaction to isolation:

After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.

After exhibiting such behavior, re-entry into the general prison population is impossible. All that’s left, then, is to persist in confinement and suffer the concomitant mental deterioration, which then requires more confinement and the concomitant mental deterioration, which then requires more confinement and the concomitant deterioration, which then requires more confinement…

The savvy no doubt notice that this action ad infinitum parallels and reinforces the prison-industrial system’s underlying motivation — ensuring its self-preservation.

Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall

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