Prison Reform: Solitary Confinement

By Hubert Plummer posted 12-01-2020 04:23 PM


One of the issues important to some of our committee members is prison reform.  Prisoners’ rights are often overlooked.  Members of the public may not even think about the issue or they may have the attitude that prison is supposed to be bad.

This is an unfortunate situation.  People serving custodial sentences are still people and still have rights. The purpose of prison is an idea that has been considered for centuries.  Is it for punishment or rehabilitation?  How much help do we owe to the incarcerated person to reintegrate into society upon their release?  It is no secret that those who have been in prison often find themselves back there.  A study has shown that 83% of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested at least once within 9 years of their release.[i]

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  6.4% of our residents are in jail or prison.  That is 2.1 million people.  25% of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  That is worse than El Salvador, Turkmenistan, China, or Russia[ii]. Are Americans really that much more criminally inclined than the rest of the world?  I don’t think so. We have a problem with mass incarceration. 

As of 2017, only 22 states had no private prisons.[iii]  New York does not have privately owned prisons. Private prisons are for-profit businesses.  So there is clearly an incentive for prisons to want to make money.  They cut costs wherever they can, to the incarcerated person’s detriment.  Government leaders who hand out lucrative contracts to the operators of the prisons have incentive to keep the process going and send more prisoners to these private prisons.[iv]  It seems that effective governmental oversight is virtually non-existent. 

These conditions are out of sight and out of mind for the general public, and as I mentioned previously, a good portion of the public may think that it is okay for prison conditions to be bad.  A good example is former Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Arizona. He called himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff”.  He was famous for his harsh treatment of incarcerated persons with bad food, reinstituting chain gangs, including juveniles, and even creating an illegal armed posse to enforce immigration laws which were not within his authority to enforce.  He set up a tent prison, in the Arizona desert.  He abused his power beyond belief.  Yet, he continued to get re-elected. He served as Sherriff for 24 years.  The public loved his outrageous “tough on crime” image despite the general knowledge of his mistreatment of incarcerated person.[v]  Another example came in 2003 when Minnesota decided to reduce food costs by eliminating lunch on weekends.  Minnesota state Rep. Marty Seifert said, “We have to make sure the rapists and murderers sacrifice like everyone else”[vi] as he equates every incarcerated person, whether they be non-violent, low level drug offenders or petty thieves to murderers and rapists.

All this is to say, we have a fundamental problem with criminal justice in the United States and it will take a sea change in American’s attitudes to make substantial change.

Now, to what brought me to this topic: the Albany Times Union published an article on November 27, 2020 about the cost of solitary confinement in New York prisons.[vii]  Again, the general public will often joke that they would love solitary so they could get some peace and quiet. These people have never experienced true solitary confinement.  Solitary means 23 hours a day in a cell with no contact with anyone.  Meals are delivered through a slot in a door.  The cell has no decoration.  They get one hour a day to exercise, alone, in a cage or courtyard.

For most of the 20th century, solitary confinement was used sparingly, maybe a day or two or in rare cases a few weeks.  Now it is not uncommon for incarcerated persons to spend months and even years in solitary.[viii]  This does terrible things to a person’s mental health, increasing depression, psychosis, and suicidal desires.[ix]

Solitary is intended be used as a punishment for violent behavior or for protection from other inmates.  Despite that, 5 out of 6 disciplinary infractions that put inmates in solitary were for non-violent conduct.[x]  The procedure is clearly being abused.

The article covers a report issued by the Partnership for the Public Good, a Buffalo-based think tank.  They looked at the proposed legislation in New York called “Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (S.1623/A.2500).”[xi]  The proposed legislation would limit the amount of time an incarcerated person could be placed in solitary confinement to a maximum of 15 consecutive days and create more humane alternates to solitary.

The bill failed to pass the legislature, partly because Governor Cuomo claimed that it would cost too much to implement.  The report determines the opposite, that the legislation would actually save the State and local governments $132 million a year over the next ten years.  The report concludes by recommending the legislation be passed, especially considering the huge blows the state’s budget has taken due to the COVID pandemic.

I agree, and I think that while we are fighting a pandemic and recovering from the severe damage done to our country by the outgoing President, we cannot ignore these other very important issues.  Prison reform is one of the biggest.












The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission.  It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.