When I was twelve, I was stripped of all my clothing, hogtied, and tossed into a cold concrete room by three large prison staff members who could have played professional football given their size. I laid in that room for hours before I was untied and given clothing. Since then, I’ve continuously been in the custody of Washington State. I’m currently serving a 45-year sentence. I’ve been sent to solitary confinement countless times, often for questionable reasons. Rather than rehabilitate, my time in isolation has only exacerbated my anger, resentment, and shame. Solitary confinement caused anxiety and depression to surface that would not be treated until well into my adulthood.
And that is why it is troubling, inhumane, and, frankly, dangerous that, on Jan. 19, New York City Mayor Eric Adams vetoed a bill that would effectively ban solitary confinement in the city’s jails. In a written statement, Adams claimed the solitary restrictions “would have taken [the city] in the wrong direction.”
Luckily for the health and safety of people in the jails, guards, and the general public, the City Council on Jan. 30 overrode the mayor’s veto and passed the bill with a supermajority of votes.
New York State’s HALT Act, passed in 2021, has already limited solitary to no more than fifteen consecutive days and banned it outright for young people. The new law (549-A) further prohibits solitary confinement in city jails other than for four-hour “de-escalation” periods, with required check-ins every fifteen minutes. After that de-escalation period, a person can then be separated into restrictive housing, where they must be allowed out of their cells for 14 hours per day and have access to programming to address why they need to be separated. Evidence shows that solitary leads to more violent behavior and alternative forms of separation have been proven to reduce violence.
The United Nations considers the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days a form of torture. But the practice—often renamed “restrictive housing” or “administrative segregation”—remains entrenched in U.S. prisons.
Solitary confinement had altruistic beginnings. In 1829, Quakers at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary believed that isolating men in cold concrete cells would give them time to reflect, study, pray, and thus leave their criminal ways behind. But the prison’s administrator found out almost immediately that the practice instead drove people crazy.
When people are housed in solitary confinement, they are placed in tiny locked cells, typically the size of parking spaces, where they stay for upwards of 22 to 24 hours per day. They do not have meaningful human interactions, have minimal exercise or stimulation, and rarely have access to prison programs or activities. They are typically handcuffed, shackled at the waist, and placed in leg irons every time they leave their cell. People imprisoned in Washington State—like those in many other areas of the country—generally must participate in instructional programs while chained and cuffed to a table in a classroom. When people are taken out of their cells for their scant hours of “exercise,” they are often taken to another tiny concrete cage equipped with just a pull-up bar and a phone. That’s the “yard.” Any fresh air often comes only from a window high above arm’s reach.
Contrary to popular belief, solitary confinement is not used sparingly or only to punish the most dangerous criminals. People are often sent to solitary for vague reasons or minor offenses, often with no evidence of wrongdoing (such as during investigations), and sometimes even with no allegations of any offense at all (such as with medical isolation, suicide watch, and protective custody). For example, I was recently sent to solitary for over a month while I was investigated for something that I was later found not to have done.
It is not uncommon for incarcerated people to be forced to endure solitary confinement for months, years, or even decades at a time, with no human interaction and minimal exposure to the light of day. Studies show that most stays start at 30 days and typically last much longer. Consider Albert Woodfox, who spent 43 grueling years in solitary confinement in Angola Prison—despite exemplary prison records—before his conviction was overturned. (He passed away five years after his release.) In April of last year, the Supreme Court turned down a case brought by a man held in solitary confinement for 27 years.
Although many nations around the world use solitary confinement, use in the United States far surpasses that of other democratic countries in terms of both the extent and length of isolation.
UN rules prohibit outright the use of solitary for people in pretrial detention (as the vast majority of people in New York City’s jails are held), children, pregnant women, and people with mental health needs. The international body encourages member countries to abolish solitary confinement altogether. Canada, for example, has abolished the practice in its prisons. Solitary confinement is also less common in Europe than in the United States. In Northern Europe (Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway), countries take a “human dignity” approach to incarceration. Solitary is almost never used.
In contrast, a report from watchdog group Solitary Watch and advocacy coalition Unlock the Box indicates that more than 122,000 people are housed in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day. Statistics show that people with serious mental illness are overrepresented in solitary confinement. Once there, people with mental illness are at a higher risk of deteriorating mental health, as mental healthcare is typically inadequate in solitary. The consequences can be devastating: for example, footage from an Indiana jail recently showed that 29-year-old Joshua McLemore died of malnutrition there during a schizophrenic episode in summer of 2021. He’d allegedly been left in solitary confinement for 20 days without mental health treatment. Indeed, 50 percent of prison suicides happen in solitary confinement.
In many cases, solitary confinement causes mental illness. The silence of prolonged isolation creates a deafening noise in one’s head. Instead of an opportunity to reflect, it’s a cruelty designed to make anyone mad.
Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist, professor, and solitary expert, told The Appeal the many harms of solitary confinement include “severe anxiety and panic, depression, mood swings, anger, withdrawal, paranoia, psychosis, trouble concentrating and all too frequently, suicide and self-harm.” Kupers said solitary “takes a substantial psychological and physical toll on all incarcerated people as well as on prison staff, and having a loved one in solitary confinement has a huge negative impact on families.” The severe neurological effects of extreme isolation and confinement often last long after the end of the isolation. Studies show that solitary confinement shortens lives. And, because solitary can cause psychotic behavior, it ultimately decreases the safety of others as well.
Solitary confinement can also allow guards to commit unnoticed or unreported forms of torture. As a team, we have talked to dozens of people who have endured prolonged solitary confinement who say they have experienced extreme physical abuse, oppressive living conditions in extreme heat or cold, the complete and long-term deprivation of exercise and sunlight, and the withholding of food, medicine, toilet paper, tampons, and other necessities. Kwaneta Harris, an incarcerated journalist in Texas who has been in solitary for eight years, told us that it is not uncommon for guards to threaten solitary if a person doesn’t succumb to sexual abuse. And, once in solitary, Harris said women are regularly sexually abused.
Statistically, 95 percent of incarcerated people will eventually return home. Some will be released directly from solitary confinement. How can we expect people living in extreme isolation to return to their communities in healthy states? Mayor Adams vetoed this bill in the name of “public safety.” Thankfully, the City Council recognized that the arcane practice of solitary confinement makes the world more dangerous—and is nothing more than torture.
Christopher Blackwell (@ChrisWBlackwell) is an incarcerated journalist currently serving a 45-year sentence in Washington State. The essay was written with Deborah Zalesne (@DebbieZalesne), Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law. The two are co-writing a book of first-hand accounts of the harms of solitary confinement.
ICYMI—From The Appeal
After The Appeal published a 2023 investigation into the Phoenix Police Department’s shooting of Jacob Harris, Arizona State Sen. Anna Hernandez introduced two bills to repeal the state’s felony murder law. The law allows prosecutors to charge bystanders with murder when police kill people. Despite the fact that police shot and killed Harris, his three friends are serving decades in prison for his death.
The state of Georgia passed a bill that will detain more people pretrial—and make charitable bail funds virtually illegal. The bill makes cash bail mandatory for people accused of many small-time crimes. Charitable bail funds posted bonds for numerous anti-Cop City protesters around Atlanta. The new bill imposes draconian regulations on those groups.
In 2001, Terence Richardson and Ferrone Claiborne were found not guilty of murdering a police officer—but a judge sentenced to life in prison anyway. Last week, Richardson was granted a hearing to present new evidence he says proves his innocence.
According to a lawsuit filed last week, the Ronald McDonald House refuses to let certain people who’ve been convicted of crimes stay near their sick children. The ACLU and Legal Action Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of a man who says he was denied a stay at a location in upstate New York.
In The News
“Abortion trafficking”—adults transporting other people’s minor children across state lines to end their pregnancies—would become a felony in the state of Mississippi if a bill filed last week becomes law. Those found guilty would be subject to $10,000 fines or imprisoned for two to five years. A similar law was enacted in Idaho last year. [Heather Harrison / Mississippi Free Press]
Fentanyl overdoses are skyrocketing, but Los Angeles officials are rampantly throwing Narcan in the garbage when sweeping homeless encampments. Some local residents have responded by stapling naloxone to trees to ensure the medicine isn’t trashed. [Jack Ross / In These Times]
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Police Department shot and killed a man initially described as having threatened employees of a local business with a stick. When asked if the person could have committed serious harm with a stick, a police spokesperson told KTLA that “Any object can cause harm, depending on how it’s used.” In an updated news release, the LAPD later stated that the man was holding a plastic fork. [Jas Kang / KTLA and Lexis Oliver-Ray / LA Taco]
In the Ohio murder trial against former Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Meade, prosecutors alleged that Meade shot and killed Casey Goodson Jr. while Goodson was wearing AirPods and holding a sandwich and keys. Goodson did regularly carry a gun (and had a concealed carry permit), but prosecutors say the gun was found on Goodson’s kitchen floor with the safety on. [The Associated Press]
In 2020, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize numerous drugs, including heroin, LSD, and PCP, in order to help people with substance-use disorder into care instead of prison cells. But, since then, the law has faced backlash from conservatives, including a repeal attempt funded in part by Nike founder Phil Knight. [E. Tammy Kim / The New Yorker]
The family of a Florida man who died in jail sued the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office after they say the agency refused to give 54-year-old Dexter Barry medication to ensure that his body would not reject a recent heart transplant. Barry later collapsed and died in the jail. An autopsy found he’d died of cardiac arrest due to his body rejecting the organ. [Nicole Manna / The Tributary]