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They Survived Solitary Confinement. Now They’re Fighting to End It.

Regardless of the name, the reality is that people spend nearly 24 hours locked in their cell each day with little to no human contact.

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person looking out prison window
A person looks out from a solitary confinement cell at the Val Verde Correctional Facility in Del Rio, Texas, on May 8, 2008., Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

For nine and a half months, Lydia Thornton was locked into her cell nearly 24 hours a day. All of her meals were slid through a slot in the cell’s steel door. She was allowed outside to shower three times each week. Through cinderblock walls, she could hear women in adjoining cells screaming for hours on end. Sometimes they threatened to kill themselves, a threat often followed by an eerie silence.

This was administrative segregation, or “ad seg,” in New Jersey’s prison system. Ad seg is one of the many official terms for solitary confinement; other systems call it punitive segregation, special housing units and keeplock. Regardless of the name, the reality is that people spend nearly 24 hours locked in their cell each day with little to no human contact.

Thornton has been out of prison since 2015. Since then, she’s been fighting to ensure that others don’t go through that same experience.

In June 2019, six years after Thornton’s experience in solitary confinement, New Jersey lawmakers passed the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, limiting solitary to 20 consecutive days or 30 days’ total during a 60-day period. The law also prevents certain “vulnerable populations,” such as people under age 21, those over age 65, pregnant people, people with mental or physical disabilities, and LGBTQ people, from being placed in isolation at all. In addition, under the law, prison staff can only place someone in solitary if they are determined to be a threat to themselves or others, not simply for violating prison rules. The New Jersey Department of Corrections will be required to provide documentation and data about its use of solitary.

More than 80,000 people are locked in solitary confinement in the U.S., and the practice is finally garnering more public attention and outrage. Meanwhile, activists, including formerly incarcerated people who have experienced isolation themselves, are pushing for laws that limit the amount of time in solitary both as a way to immediately stop ongoing torture and as a stepping stone to larger criminal legal reforms. Their efforts have also pushed the issue into becoming a talking point among (some) Democratic presidential candidates, with Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, John Hickenlooper and Beto O’Rourke publicly denouncing it as torture and calling for limits to time spent in isolation.

Primarily, however, reforms are being advocated at the state level. Some clear victories have already emerged. For example, New Jersey’s Isolated Confinement Restriction Act was originally introduced and passed by the legislature in 2016. Then-Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the bill, calling it an “ill-informed, politically motivated press release.” The bill was reintroduced and signed into law after Gov. Phil Murray — who campaigned on criminal legal reforms including bail reform, marijuana legalization and a reexamination of mandatory minimum sentencing — took office.

New York’s “HALT Solitary” Legislation Quietly Dies

In New York, a similar bill did not fare as well. New York prisons currently have 2,540 people in dedicated solitary units (called Special Housing Units or SHUs) and an estimated 1,000 in keeplock, or 23-hour lockdown in their own cells.

After six years of organizing, advocates held high hopes for the passage of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit stints in isolation to 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a given 60-day period. It would also create alternative units for people who, according to authorities, needed to be separated from others for a longer period of time. These alternative units, or Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs) would separate people from general population, but would allow them six hours each day for out-of-cell programming and another hour of recreation. HALT would have applied to state prisons as well as local jails. Jails that hold less than 500 people would be exempt from having to create RRUs.

By the last week of the state’s legislative session, both the Assembly and Senate versions had enough votes to pass. In addition to rallies and press conferences, advocates with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) launched an eightday hunger strike to press legislative leaders to bring the bill to a vote. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly voiced his opposition to the bill, stating that it would require spending $300 million to build new prison cells. It was an assertion that advocates contested, noting that the governor’s original budget proposal contained $69 million in capital costs and $10 million in operating expenses for his own solitary reform proposal.

Instead, legislative leaders Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl E. Heastie reached a compromise with Governor Cuomo. Under the compromise, Governor Cuomo will issue regulations prohibiting adolescents, pregnant people, and people with disabilities from being placed in solitary. In addition, placement in a specially designated solitary unit, such as the SHU, will be capped at 30 days.

The regulations only extend to state prisons, not local jails. This means that people like Layleen Polanco, who died nine days into a 20-day solitary sentence at Rikers Island, New York’s island-jail complex, or Kalief Browder, who died by suicide after spending two of his three years at Rikers Island in solitary, would not be protected by the governor’s regulations. In 2015, the Board of Correction, New York City’s penal oversight board, passed a rule limiting solitary to 30 consecutive days or 60 days total during any six-month period. But people in other jails have no time limits on their stay in isolation.

Cuomo has not yet publicly released his solitary regulations. The state budget that ultimately passed contained $14.2 million in operating costs, largely for 153 full-time staff of solitary units and another $70 million for projects related to solitary confinement reform. But news of the legislative compromise has already spread throughout the state’s prison system. The campaign has received letters from people currently in solitary confinement as well as calls from their outside family members. “Everybody is heartbroken and disappointed,” Victor Pate, statewide organizer for the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, told Truthout.

“We want people out of their cells the same way that the United Nations has said that more than 15 days in solitary is torture,” said Roger Clark, a member of CAIC and advocacy group VOCAL-NY, referencing the 2015 Mandela rules. Clark spent five years at the Southport Correctional Facility, a dedicated 23-hour lockdown prison. Both he and Pate see the fight to limit solitary confinement as one of the many ways to end mass incarceration.

But thanks to organizers’ efforts, at least one electoral hopeful has also made solitary his talking point. Janos Marton, a former advocate with the #CloseRikers campaign and now campaign manager for the ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign, is running for Manhattan district attorney. Among his campaign pledges is a promise to drastically limit solitary for all people awaiting trial in Manhattan. (As of 2019, one-third of the people in New York City’s jails are from Manhattan.)

“As Manhattan DA, I would have a policy that anytime a defendant is being held in non-compliance with the Mandela rules, or whatever version of HALT is passed, I would drop bail [requirements] against that defendant, so hopefully they could be removed from the jail system,” Marton told Truthout. If dropping bail requirements is not possible, Marton says he would dismiss the criminal charges. “That might seem controversial to some people, but I feel that it’s a moral imperative to not torture people in solitary,” he said.

Marton recalls touring Rikers Island and seeing the segregation units for himself. “I wouldn’t last two days in those cells.”

Speaking Out About Trauma

Pate noted that the devastation caused by solitary doesn’t disappear once a person is released. “I’ve been home 23 years,” he pointed out. “I’m not completely healed yet.” Speaking about his experiences and organizing to end these policies have been instrumental in his healing process. “if you don’t talk about it, you don’t get better,” Pate counsels people who are currently incarcerated or nearing release.

But not every person is ready to do that. Many bury their trauma. Thornton recalls a woman in her mid-twenties confined two cells down from her in New Jersey’s isolation unit. The woman, Thornton told Truthout, had mental health issues and had already been in ad seg for a year before Thornton arrived. The woman often punched or banged her head against the walls. One day, as she passed Thornton’s door for her thrice-weekly shower, she put her hand through the food slot. It was swollen from continually hitting the cinderblock walls.

Instinctively, Thornton stroked her hand in sympathy. When she saw the woman’s eyes well with tears, she apologized, assuming that her touch had caused more pain. When the woman returned from the shower, Thornton was waiting by her cell door to apologize again. As the woman slowly walked past Thornton’s cell, she replied, “That’s the first time anyone has touched me except in violence in two years.” The woman was still in segregation nine and a half months later when Thornton was moved to general population.

The woman is now out of prison. Thornton has occasionally seen her on the streets, but says that the woman refuses to talk about her time in isolation.

That’s not unusual, says Brian Nelson, prisoners’ rights coordinator at Chicago’s Uptown People’s Law Center. Nelson spent 23 years in solitary; 12 were at the infamous (and now-closed) Tamms supermax prison. Now he shares his story to push Illinois lawmakers to pass the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act to limit isolation to no more than 10 consecutive days during any 180-day period continues.

In Illinois, people can be sent to segregation for a variety of reasons. In 2011, over 500 people were sent to segregation for damage or misuse of property. Another 300 were isolated for “intimidation or threats” and another 150 for drug or drug paraphernalia possession. But even pettier acts can result in extreme isolation: That same year, 1,500 segregation sentences were imposed for unauthorized movement, 1,300 for insolence and 800 for non-dangerous contraband.

Nelson knows dozens of people who have spent time in solitary. They all support the Illinois bill, he told Truthout, but virtually no one wants to relive the trauma by telling their stories publicly. He’s one of the few who will, but every time he does, he spends the rest of the day wrestling with suicidal feelings. That’s not the only after-effect of solitary. Nelson has a hard time being around other people, sequestering himself in an office upstairs at the 15-person Uptown People’s Law Office. He hasn’t gone to his family’s house for holidays in over three years. He can’t ride public transportation. And he remains devastated knowing that so many other people are still held under similar conditions.

Nelson and Gregory Koger, who spent six consecutive years in solitary starting at age 17, have started the Prison Liberation Collective to not only organize against solitary and mass incarceration, but to help survivors of solitary address the trauma of long-term isolation.

Challenging Solitary in Court

In 2016, six people currently in solitary have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Illinois’s use of solitary as a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and 14th Amendment right to due process.

The six men have spent between six months and 17 years in extreme isolation. (Since the suit has been filed, one person has been released from isolation, though he remains in prison.) Now, they are demanding that the Illinois Department of Corrections implement policies based on the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards, which restrict solitary only for reasons pertaining to discipline, security, ongoing investigation of misconduct or crime, and protection from harm, and then only for the briefest period of time.

In March 2017, a federal court ruled that the six Illinois prisoners had stated a claim for unconstitutional conditions of confinement and that the hearings held by the prison were violations of their constitutional right to due process. Since then, the Uptown People’s Law Center has had experts tour six of the state’s prisons; their reports will be submitted as part of their September motion to have the lawsuit certified as a class-action suit.

Alan Mills, director of the Uptown People’s Law Center and co-counsel on the suit, says the fight to end solitary plays a dual role: It is both a chance to reduce harm for people behind bars and also part of a larger fight to rethink the criminal legal system. “Just like society hides many of its problems by putting people in prison, prisons hide many problems by putting people in solitary,” he told Truthout.

For example, Mills noted that the criminalization of people with serious mental illness frequently results in their incarceration rather than genuine efforts at mental health treatment. Similarly, prisons often place people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement rather than offering them treatment. In challenging solitary confinement, Mills and other advocates say they are challenging the logic on which the larger system of punishment is built.

“What we’re really doing is rethinking ways that we deal with prisons and punishment as a whole,” Mills said.