For more than two decades, the “box” has been where New York’s most despised prisoners went to disappear. Flagged by correctional officers as unruly or dangerous, troublemakers would be locked up in this network of solitary confinement cells with virtually no human contact 23 hours a day, left to spiral into despair and psychological devastation. Now the state government is beginning to dismantle this infamous testament to the American way of torture.
Under a groundbreaking settlement recently reached between New York state and the New York Civil Liberties Union, correctional authorities say they will “comprehensively overhaul solitary confinement” across the state’s prison system. The advocacy groups and solitary confinement survivors who brought a legal challenge hope that ending the worst forms of punitive isolation will help establish essential human rights standards in one of the country’s largest prison systems.
The five-year reform plan directs the state to release people incrementally through a step-down approach. Authorities will grant automatic early release on the basis of good behavior, end the use of starvation punishment through revolting rations of Nutraloaf and expand access to phone communications and recreational opportunities. The state will sharply limit the infractions that could land someone in extreme isolation. Placements will now be limited to less than three months, except in cases involving severe assault or attempted escape, and under one month for first-time nonviolent offenders. But even after leaving the box, the solitary confinement population — currently about 4,000 individuals statewide — will be far from free and will likely always be haunted by the experience.
The immediate beneficiaries are about 1,100 inmates who will be shifted out of solitary and into tailored rehabilitative services — including behavioral therapy, drug treatment and special programming for youths. The release plans for this cohort illustrate how the box has been twisted into a repository for people the system is not equipped to handle.
Thirty-nine people in the box will transition into rehabilitative services, without which they would “otherwise be released directly from solitary to the streets,” according to the settlement. While formerly incarcerated people generally face steep social and economic barriers after release, survivors of solitary may need even more extensive therapy and social supports to help them cope with life in the community, and there’s no guarantee of a full recovery. What is certain is that the time they have lost to the box is irrevocable. The mental torture of solitary has created tremendous long-term social costs for people who might otherwise be able to reintegrate more readily into their communities and the labor force after release.
Also exiting the box are 64 people with developmental disabilities. They are a segment of the prison population for whom solitary is often administered as a form of therapy rather than outright punishment — isolating people ostensibly to protect them from harming themselves or others. Yet this lethal conflation of security and suppression suggests that punitive segregation (sometimes euphemistically called restricted housing) has become a tool for managing disorder. While isolating mentally unstable or vulnerable people may quiet a restive cellblock, it inevitably deprives them of critical therapy and social care to which they would normally be entitled, had they wound up in an asylum instead of a cell.
The 22 young people set for release from the box will shift into a less isolated setting, with access to social services. Yet even under the new accord, some 16- and 17-year olds will continue to be held in severe isolation for up to 18 hours per day. Although all incarcerated youths deserve educational programming, no adolescents deserve to grow up in an institution that can’t find a better way to keep them in school than to put their classroom behind prison gates.
While reducing solitary provides humanitarian relief to its direct victims, comprehensive reform efforts must center on a human-rights-driven approach to justice.
After the announcement of the settlement, NYCLU attorney Taylor Pendergrass said that initial waves of prison reform involved “trying to do things to protect the most vulnerable from solitary,” particularly young people and those with mental health problems. However, he added, “we’re not turning our attention to the root causes of some of the punitive culture and talking about making changes that are broadly applicable to everyone who is incarcerated, not just those that might be the most sympathetic.”
Sympathy for criminalized youths of color is certainly a welcome development, as is Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new initiative to grant conditional pardons to individuals imprisoned for nonviolent offenses committed during their teens. But these reforms, which reflect rising political disdain for draconian zero-tolerance policies in the war on drugs, aim to remedy past injustices against disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. Could the same moral ethos be applied to, for example, adults or youths convicted of violent, arguably less forgivable, crimes?
As one box survivor testified for the NYCLU before the New York City Council, “The prison system is designed to make a person like myself … self-destruct, become numb.” Has it numbed us as well?
Prison reform is an administrative goal, but decarceration is a social project. Overhauling and ultimately abolishing the carceral regime will require not only a culture change in prison administration and staff but also a societal transformation. Communities must confront the social and racial inequities that fuel segregation and bias across criminal justice institutions as well as the institutionalized impulse to track people into prison when what they really need are mental health providers and decent public schools.
When it comes to addressing mass incarceration, the essential challenge is not removing people from the box but collapsing the warped moral framework enabling it. The hundreds of people who will soon walk out of punitive isolation won’t be free as long as we on the outside remain boxed in by the mentality of mass incarceration. They won’t get free until we realize we’re all safer when we let the walls fall instead of relentlessly buttress a hollow edifice of security.