Johnny Pérez arrived at Rikers Island, a complex of 10 New York City jails, when he was 16 years old.
Pérez was sentenced to serve one year on gun possession charges. Although he steered clear of gang involvement while he was at Rikers, he said he wound up getting in a fight with a prisoner who was affiliated with a gang.
That altercation landed him in solitary confinement for 60 days.
“I just remember it being really cold and really quiet,” he recalled of his time in solitary confinement. “I remember talking to myself a lot, contemplating suicide. I could not understand what I had done that was so bad that it caused me to be placed in solitary for 60 days.”
At age 21, Pérez again found himself in trouble with the law. He was convicted of first-degree robbery for stealing food from a convenience store and was sentenced to 15 years in a New York prison. While serving his sentence, he said he was placed in solitary confinement multiple times — with terms ranging from a couple of months to an entire year — for such infractions as testing positive for cannabis consumption and acting as a translator for Spanish-speaking prisoners. By the end of his incarceration, he said he had spent a cumulative three years in solitary confinement.
In light of stories like Perez’s, the Roc/ACTS interfaith social-justice coalition announced Jan. 23 that it has joined a statewide coalition of 200 organizations in the #HALTsolitary Campaign to stop extended use of solitary confinement in New York through passage of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. The bill has been passed by the state Assembly and is waiting for action in the state Senate, said Michael Tomb, a volunteer who works with Roc/ACTS.
On Jan. 30, the New York State Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, voiced its support for the HALT legislation. The conference said the bill would “limit the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives to such confinement.”
Pérez, who is now the director of U.S. prison programs at the Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, emphasized that the bill is not intended to eliminate all use of solitary confinement, as some people believe. Instead, it aims to limit the amount of time that prisoners spend in solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days, he said.
What is solitary confinement?
The national watchdog group Solitary Watch defines solitary confinement as the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods ranging from days to decades. Most prisons in the nation contain solitary confinement units, according to Solitary Watch, and most local jails include cells where people can be held in solitary confinement.
According to the Princeton University group Students for Prison Education and Reform (princetonspear.com/7×9-fact-sheet), the use of solitary confinement was largely discontinued in the U.S. in 1890 after the Supreme Court ruled that it led to mental deterioration and did not rehabilitate those so incarcerated. The practice was re-implemented in the 1980s and 1990s during the War on Drugs, which was started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, SPEAR noted.
Solitary confinement by the numbers
According to SPEAR, the U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world’s overall population yet almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Since the 1980s, the number of incarcerated Americans has nearly quadrupled — a consequence SPEAR attributes to “tough on crime” policies and the War on Drugs, which it says have disproportionately affected communities of color.
Moreover, according to the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, which works with government and civil leaders to improve justice systems, 80,000 individuals across the U.S. served time in solitary confinement in 2011.
The effects of solitary confinement
According to the American Psychological Association, one of its members, Craig Haney, studied the consequences of solitary incarceration in 2012 and found that inmates in solitary confinement are at serious risk of psychological harm.
“Many inmates experience panic attacks, depression and paranoia, and some suffer hallucinations,” Haney said in an article on the APA’s website (www.apa.org/monitor/2012/10/solitary).
Haney said he shared his findings that year with the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights (https://bit.ly/2m9PjMY), which conducted a hearing on solitary confinement. At the hearing, Haney testified that when prisoners are released from solitary confinement into regular cells or back into society, they often are overwhelmed with anxiety. He noted that prisoners get to the point that they become frightened of other human beings.
While some prisoners serving terms in solitary confinement develop mental-health problems as a consequence, others with already-established mental-health issues can experience a worsening of their conditions.
Karen Helm has been witness to the latter.
Helm is a local special-education teacher who works with adolescents who have emotional and behavioral issues. One of her students was 18 when he was arrested, and she said he is continuing to serve time in state prison after three years. Helm said that at least half of the time he has served has been spent in solitary confinement, and he is currently serving a solitary confinement term of 20 months.
Helm said she knew the young man would have issues during his incarceration because he has PTSD, anxiety and depression.
As a member of the New York Campaign for Alternative Isolated Confinement, the coalition behind the #HALTsolitary Campaign, Helm advocates for those who have been incarcerated. She said she feels the prison system is not equipped to educate or rehabilitate prisoners, especially those who are young adults with mental illnesses. Prison is already punishment, she said, and mental illness cannot be punished out of people by placing them in solitary confinement. Instead, such confinement only exacerbates mental-health problems, she said.
Helm said she finds most striking that students with mental-health issues are provided with behavioral plans, counseling and support, but such forms of support are not provided if the same students become incarcerated.
Noting that research indicates solitary confinement accomplishes nothing but harm, especially among young adults for whom sensory deprivation and social isolation are particularly damaging, Helm said she is surprised that the practice is still in use.
“While I believe people should be held accountable for their actions, they can be held accountable without being tortured,” she remarked.
Members of local organizations like the NYCAIC and Roc/ACTS will travel to Albany April 30 to lobby state representatives in support of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.
For more information on the lobby day or the #HALTsolitary Campaign, visit nycaic.org.
For more information on the bill, visit nycaic.org/legislation.