The research is in—in fact, the facts on solitary confinement have been known for years—but finally, we seem to have reached a tipping point for ending this well-studied, torturous practice in American jails and prisons.
In New York, there is currently a bill before the upper house, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would prohibit solitary beyond 15 days for all people; create alternatives to solitary, including Residential Rehabilitation Units; and ban certain categories of people from serving even one day in confined, isolated spaces.
HALT also seeks to make the use of solitary more transparent, as it has been known to be used punitively by corrections officers to get rid of unruly prisoners, punish prisoners for minor infractions, “tame” the mentally ill, or even as retribution against “political activities.”
While in states like New York, the changes are being proposed through the legislature (although New York State was also sued over solitary confinement), in others, like Florida and Virginia, reformers and those most impacted are suing corrections systems in federal court to end solitary as it is currently practiced.
Activists like Johnny Perez, Director of U.S. Prison Programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), say that this two-pronged approach—both through the courts and through the legislature—is essential.
“We cannot trust that leadership of corrections to place their own limitations on solitary, or even deeper, to treat the people who are incarcerated like their own family members, that is with compassion,” Perez told The Root.
“Therefore, we have to sue, we have to rally and we have to get these changes codified into law,” he continued. “Corrections has this idea where if they implement these incremental changes, that that’s the end, but [these small gestures] really don’t have any impact or lasting change, particularly on men and women currently incarcerated.”
On Monday, the ACLU of Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against the use of long-term solitary confinement in two of Virginia’s super-maximum security prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, charging that some prisoners had been in solitary for 24 years.
The Star Tribune reports that the suit alleges that solitary confinement has caused “severe physical and mental health damage” to inmates, including hallucinations, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
“Solitary confinement should only be used in rare and exceptional cases as a last resort,” said Vishal Agraharkar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Virginia, according to the Washington Post. “Unfortunately, the way this program is structured it is effectively keeping people in solitary beyond what’s necessary.”
The ACLU and the White & Case law firm, which brought the suit, said that by keeping its charges in long-term solitary for more than 20 hours a day, Virginia and its corrections department was in violation of a 1985 consent decree in which it agreed to end the practice.
The Star Tribune says that the Virginia Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations made in the lawsuit, though it has “repeatedly denied using solitary confinement” saying it instead uses a “restrictive housing” and a “step-down program” that allows inmates to earn their way back into the general population.
However, activists charge that these so-called reforms are not as effective as advocates know they could be.
“The current Step-Down Program is a system of vague standards, contradictory goals, and malleable jargon used to conceal what is nothing more than an indefinite or permanent solitary confinement regime,” the lawsuit reads.
In Florida on Thursday, five plaintiffs, including a minor, announced a federal class-action lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections saying that solitary confinement is a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The Florida suit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Florida Legal Services and the Florida Justice Institute.
SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Shalini Goel Agarwal charges that Florida uses solitary confinement at more than double the national average, with over 10 percent of its prison population in solitary, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
“At any given time there are close to 10,000 people locked away in solitary confinement in Florida’s prison system for months, even years, in cells smaller than a parking space,” Agarwal said.
Agarwal also notes that the mentally ill share the brunt of solitary confinement placement, even when the method has been proven to either exacerbate or bring about psychosis.
“People with mental illness are five times as likely to be placed in isolation,” Agarwal said.
In Virginia, the class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 named inmates and others who are, have been, or will be placed in solitary confinement at Red Onion or Wallens Ridge, notes the Democrat.
In Florida, the five plaintiffs were chosen because they represent extreme cases of isolation, had complained to authorities about their condition and had the courage to bring forward a challenge.
Both suits effectively want to end long-term solitary confinement, and in Virginia, put an end of the “step-down program” as well.
In 2011, a United Nations expert on torture called on all countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible, with an absolute ban on juveniles and those with mental disabilities.
But in the United States, doing away with this barbaric practice may have to happen one state at a time—by law or via court— in order to make that a reality.