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A Denial of Human Dignity: Solitary Confinement

While prisons are designed to further purposes of deterrence and retribution, do those aims come with an unfettered right to abuse incarcerated individuals? 

In 2015, the nation was shocked to hear the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year old wrongfully arrested for robbery who served two years in solitary confinement prior to trial.  After his release, Browder committed suicide.  A documentary entitled Time: The Kalief Browder Story, produced by iconic hip-hop rapper Jay-Z recounts Browder’s experience in Rikers and the psychological tortures of solitary confinement.[1]  In that same year, Terry Poole, a North Carolina inmate, committed suicide after serving time in solitary confinement.[2]  A recent article found that there are nearly 300 inmate suicide attempts in American jails and prisons every year.[3]  The statistical prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts increases for inmates in solitary confinement.[4] The deleterious physical and psychological effects of solitary confinement has wide-spread social science support[5], but is the repudiation of solitary confinement progressing rapidly enough?

Ultimately, Americans—by and through the casting of theiJuvenile-in-Cell-300x248r ballots—must decide whether the conviction of a crime, putting aside the heinousness of felony offenses generally, warrants an extraneous, additional punishment to include prolonged physical and psychological suffering.  Does the Eighth Amendment allow for carte blanche treatment of inmates?  Because of an adjudication of guilt, are prisoners properly cast into dark holes without recourse from our Constitution? I think not.

The overreliance on incarceration, alongside prolonged sentences has caused the United States to be deemed the highest incarcerator in the world. “While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners.”[6]  The punitive framework upon which our heavy incarceration model rests informs American “just deserts” ideology.

Is solitary confinement “just deserts” for inmates with serious mental illness?

Prolonged periods of solitary confinement are not within the anticipated scope of punishment at the sentencing phase.  Once found guilty, the court imposes a sentence that restricts liberty interests—an inmate’s ability to choose how he or she spends his or her time.  Namely, inmates must follow the direction of prison personnel, eat when directed, shower when told to do so, and see family and friends within the limited visitation hours.  However, psychological torture—as evidenced by social sciences—is over and above general restrictions on liberty, particularly for inmates with serious mental illnesses.  Our client, Jonathon, provides an illustrative example.

NDH recently filed a case challenging Jonathon’s[7] unconstitutional conditions of confinement in Five Points Correctional Facility.  There, Jonathon, a teenager with serious mental illnesses, has been subject to exacerbating solitary confinement conditions ranging from 17.5-23 hours per day.  Jonathon’s mental issues have a long, documented history, and a Court found that an injunction enjoining the use of solitary confinement was appropriate in Paykina on behalf of E.L. v. Donna Lewin, et. al., 387 F.Supp.3d 225, (N.D.N.Y. 2019).  Since that order, Jonathon turned 18, aged out of the juvenile facility, and was transferred to Five Points, a maximum-security prison.

Since his arrival at Five Points, Jonathon’s mental illnesses have manifested in misbehaviors. Those misbehaviors have led to his assignment in restrictive housing placements.  While in solitary confinement, Jonathon has cut himself over 100 times, has expressed a desire to end his life with a razor, and has experienced auditory hallucinations.  These punishments, grounded in his unique susceptibility to the tortures of solitary confinement by virtue of his mental illness, exceed the confounds of the Constitution.  To follow this case, check out our website for future updates.

Do penological interests of safety and security warrant the pervasive use of solitary confinement?

The most commonly advanced reason for the prolific use of solitary confinement is the management and control of misbehaving inmates.  In short, prison officials resort to solitary confinement to maintain order, even when the basis for misbehavior stems from mental illnesses.  For example, if an inmate with schizophrenia is experiencing a delusion where he perceives a bystander inmate as an attacker, how is he or she able to appreciate the gravity of his inappropriate physical attack against the inmate?  In instances such as these, an inmate may be sentenced to a term of solitary confinement notwithstanding that his offense derived from a manifestation of his mental illness.

In addition to not being able to comprehend the wrongfulness of said act, the inmate’s delusions could become more pronounced in an isolation setting.  Upon release into the general population, the negative impacts of solitary confinement, will likely manifest in another misbehavior.  Principles of fairness and human dignity require a more nuanced approach for inmates with serious mental illnesses.  After all, Ghandi says the measure of society is to be judged by how we treat our weakest members of society—certainly persons already deemed second class citizens in many respects by their criminal convictions are deserving of some mercy in serving their sentences in a dignified manner that does not include solitary confinement, a known exacerbator of serious mental illness.

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[7] The writer uses the fictious name of “Jonathon” to protect the plaintiff’s identity because the first case was filed when plaintiff was a juvenile and is subject to confidentiality requirements.