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The Cage is Full: The Devastating Effects of Solitary Confinement

August 7, 2015

If you’re like me, you’ve sung along to the Orange is the New Black theme song countless times as you found yourself drawn in by the “watch ‘til you drop” nature of the show. We’ve laughed at Pennsatucky in her bouts of rural logic, or gawked at Suzanne’s obsession with Piper. Remember when our jaw dropped at the end of the first season? I’m pretty sure I spilled my snacks as Piper made her second trip to solitary confinement(“the SHU”). That was a pretty memorable Christmas smack down. And we’re all eagerly awaiting to see what is next for Sophia.


Image of Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox, from Netflix’s Orange is the New Black

I must say though, prior to the hermit-inducing dramedy, I’ve never really thought about our prison system. Like many others, sometimes I’ll catch a high profile case on the television. But after the trial is over, some bad guy (or gal) gets tossed into prison and they’re no longer prime TV. Unless of course, someone escapes from a New York prison. Then we get to catch another glimpse of our country’s incarcerated population.

In recent SCOTUS decision Davis v. Ayala, Justice Kennedy went rogue with his concurring opinion to voice his concerns on an overlooked topic: solitary confinement. The Ayala case was actually about the prosecutor’s alleged race-based juror selections. However, Justice Kennedy saw this as a clear opportunity to remark on American incarceration’s devastating effects on its prisoners. His criticisms are definitely not based on new information. They echo longstanding studies and statistics that denounce solitary confinement.

Many don’t realize that prisoners who’ve spent any amount of time in solitary confinement are exposed to torturous and inhumane mental abuse. According to Amnesty International, it is estimated that 25,000 inmates in the United States are currently serving their sentence in whole or part in solitary confinement, many regardless of their conduct in prison. Depending on the facility, inmates can be sent to solitary for reasons including: possessing five dollars or more without authorization, religious-based grooming noncompliance, and gender non-conformity. Activist group Sylvia Rivera Law Project states that there have been many instances where a trans woman is sent to solitary confinement for possessing women’s clothing without staff authorization.

Research has shown that solitary confinement often subjects an inmate to conditions that produce severe mental illness, including anxiety, clinical depression, insanity, and ultimately suicide.  American Journal of Public Health’s 2014 study found that solitary confinement detainees in New York City jails were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves than those in general population. In California prisons in 2004, 73% of all suicides occurred in isolation unit, despite accounting for less than 10% of the state’s total prison population. In the Indiana Department of Corrections, the rate of suicides in segregation was almost three times that of other housing units (ACLU).

With this in mind, we must stop and ask ourselves: what is our principal motivation for establishing a criminal justice system? Is it really to punish the wrongdoers and protect law-abiding people from the lawless? And at what cost are we willing to pay to facilitate this justice? Are we willing to sacrifice another’s well-being and mental stability to further law and order? I know the cynics out there are retorting, “they did the crime, so they do the time,” but have they stopped to see the true effects of this institutionalized isolation? Thankfully many prisons implement programs to rehabilitate the institutionalized such as vocational training, GED and higher learning, and counseling. However, solitary confinement severely undermines any progress these programs make.

Kalief Browder was one of the many to feel the harrowing effects of solitary confinement in our system.  22-year old Kalief died by suicide earlier this June, following a 3-year stay in New York’s Rikers Jail Complex. During his three-year imprisonment awaiting trial, two of those years were spent in solitary confinement.  That’s right, two-thirds of his time awaiting trial for a robbery case—which was ultimately dropped—were spent as Justice Kennedy described, in a “cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day; and in the one hour when he leaves it, he likely is allowed little or no opportunity for conversation or interaction with anyone.”

His attorney, family, teachers, and friends regarded Kalief as an “intelligent and humble” man. However, his demeanor turned 180 degrees by the time he was released. Kalief left Rikers with severe depression and anxiety. Officials say that Kalief had attempted suicide numerous times during his stay at Rikers. After every attempt, his “tools” were taken from him, and Kalief’s freedoms were further confined. Two years following his release and exoneration, Kalief was lost to suicide.

Sadly, many inmates are also thrown into solitary, not for their actions, but for their own safety. This is often the case for hundreds of LGBTQ inmates a year. And much like Kalief, many of these individuals found their way into confinement following procedural injustices in the courts. This is what happened to CeCe McDonald. CeCe spent 19 months in jail for defending herself against transphobic and racist aggressors in June 2011. On the night in question, three individuals threatened, chased, and attacked as she and her friends headed home.  When a large white man lunged toward CeCe, she reacted.

CeCe accepted a plea deal to serve 41 months in the Minnesota Correctional Facility. Shortly after her arrival in the men’s facility, she was sent to solitary confinement. Due to current incarceration protocol, transgender individuals are often housed based on their gender identity. This usually leads to solitary confinement of LGBTQ inmates, especially trans women like CeCe, as they are clear targets for physical and sexual abuse by other inmates. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, published by the National LGBTQ Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, reports that one in six transgender Americans have been to prison, nearly half of whom are black transgender individuals. Furthermore, it states that sixteen percent of respondents reported being physically assaulted while incarcerated and fifteen percent were sexually assaulted.

Justice Thomas also took a brief moment to comment on Kennedy’s concerns for solitary confinement. His response? That Ayala has had much more accommodation in his “windowless cell” than that of his victims. Unfortunately, this is a common response by those who are unconcerned by prisoners’ rights. Of the thousands of individuals who’ve faced this deteriorating isolation, supporters can only hope that those who have mentally survived the confinement can speak out against it.

And let’s not forget, these are people we’re talking about–people with minds and hearts, families and communities–just as you and I. We cannot continue throwing the “bad eggs” into small, isolated boxes and forgetting their humanity. Isn’t our prison system built to rehabilitate, not destroy them? Solitary confinement undermines the beneficial impact of programs like education and vocational training, and blatantly sends the message that we don’t care about our prisoners. I refuse to believe that this message is true.  So while we may enjoy our late nights watching Latina kitchen politics and the high value of stale cigarettes on Orange is the New Black episodes, we cannot forget the real people who live these lives; especially those in that windowless cell.

It’s time that we take a hard look into how we can fix this faulty systematic abuse.  How about statutory limits on solitary confinements? Or mental health screening protocols? These are much simpler measures than reactively assessing the effects of solitary confinement, or worse, doing nothing at all.

…The light was off but now it’s on.  Searching in the ground for a bitter song.

The sun is out, the day is new.  And everyone is waiting, waiting on you.

If you would like to read more about Kalief Browder, be sure to read the New York Post’s profile.  You can find more information about CeCe McDonald and her journey here.

– Beckham Rivera, Holley Law Fellow, National LGBTQ Task Force

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