Solitary Confinement Is Torture, And It Should Be Banned Everywhere

New York’s HALT Solitary Act ends long-term solitary confinement. It’s not enough, but it’s a step against a torturous and inhumane practice. No one should be subjected to solitary confinement, anywhere, for any length of time.

A solitary confinement cell. (Dan Lee / Shutterstock via ACLU)

Not long after his twenty-fifth year in solitary confinement, Billy Blake committed to writing the many deaths he’d have preferred to the torture of his prolonged isolation. “Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways,” he wrote in a 2013 essay. “If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box — and I have tried to imagine it — I can come up with nothing.”

Eight years later, Blake remains in solitary, but he has some cause for hope now. This week, he announced his impending release to the general prison population through another essay for Solitary Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Blake is serving a sentence of seventy-seven years to life in New York’s Mid-State Correctional Facility for shooting two sheriff’s deputies — killing one — in a botched attempt to escape a county courthouse, where he was being held on drug charges. That was 1987, when Blake was twenty-three. After he was convicted, the state designated him a threat to “safety and security” — a near-guarantee of indefinite solitary confinement and a form of double punishment meted out by a retributive prison bureaucracy.

Now, after eight years of organizing against solitary confinement, New York state is poised to eradicate the system that consigned Blake to decades of arbitrary torture. On March 18, supermajorities of the New York State Legislature passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act. Late Wednesday night, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law, but he requested changes in the form of a chapter amendment (a bill that amends another bill). Details on the changes haven’t been shared yet. Cuomo effectively killed a similar measure in 2019 and waited until the last possible moment to sign the current bill into law.

HALT, which goes into effect one year from now, will dramatically restrict the use of solitary confinement across all prisons and jails in New York state.

New York state senator Julia Salazar. (Photo courtesy Julia Salazar)

Cuomo’s prior opposition to the act was rooted in claims that it would be too expensive to implement — the governor’s office argued that HALT required new construction. The democratic socialist lead sponsor, state senator Julia Salazar, told Jacobin that no new construction would actually be needed.

HALT may end up saving the state money. A research report from the Partnership for the Public Good estimated that the HALT Act will actually save the state $1.3 billion over ten years, with the majority of savings resulting from closing down prisons and cells dedicated to solitary, which cost more than general population cells.

The legislation follows broken commitments by the Cuomo administration to limit solitary.

In June 2019, the governor reached a backroom deal with the leaders of the state legislature to “dramatically reduce” the use of solitary confinement through implementing administrative changes. Cuomo’s counsel to the governor said that a thirty-day limit on isolation would be implemented as soon as possible.

However, more than a year later, the Cuomo administration had not adopted the agreed-upon changes. The governor’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

What Does Solitary Confinement Do to People?

Prolonged solitary confinement has been widely recognized as torture. A former UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, concluded that solitary confinement constitutes torture. (Méndez recently called on Cuomo to sign the HALT Act and said that the harms of solitary “are not substantively different from those of, say, waterboarding or pulling fingernails.”) The UN General Assembly adopted Méndez’s proposal as part of the Nelson Mandela Rules, which consider solitary confinement beyond fifteen consecutive days torture and call for its abolition. All member states, including the United States, agreed.

Solitary confinement can destroy the minds of those who were previously mentally healthy, as well as exacerbate existing mental illness.

Professor Craig Haney has studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement for over thirty years. In testimony before the US Senate, he said:

[M]any prisoners become so desperate and despondent that they engage in self-mutilation and, as I noted early, a disturbingly high number resort to suicide. Indeed, it is not uncommon in these units to encounter prisoners who have smeared themselves with feces, sit catatonic in puddles of their own urine on the floors of their cells, or shriek wildly and bang their fists or their heads against the walls that contain them.

Researchers have found that people held in solitary confinement are many times more likely to kill themselves, even when controlling for other factors. (One study on solitary confinement at Rikers Island found that the only other variable that better predicted self-harm and suicide attempts was having a serious mental illness.)

For many, the prospect of continued isolation is worse than death. As Billy Blake wrote, “Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself.”

The effects of solitary confinement can linger long after the sentence has been served. People who experience solitary confinement are at a higher risk of suicide even after they leave prison entirely.

Kalief Browder spent three years at Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was sixteen. He spent nearly two of those years in solitary confinement. Browder attempted suicide multiple times while at Rikers. Two years after his release, he hanged himself at his parents’ home. He was twenty-two.

Ben Van Zandt hanged himself in his solitary cell at Fishkill Correctional Facility. Van Zandt suffered from severe depression and psychosis, conditions exacerbated by his isolation. He was twenty-one.

Victor Pate, an activist who spent two of his fifteen years in prison in solitary confinement, told Jacobin that even twenty-five years after his release, he “can’t forget it.” He still has solitary dreams and sometimes gets overwhelmed in crowds: “It doesn’t take but a moment for me to just be transformed back behind the wall or even in that solitary confinement cell.” Pate said that solitary is there “just to break you down.” The experience of solitude was anything but quiet. People would scream and threaten to kill themselves. They would tell guards they were sick and needed help but not get any answer.

According to Haney, the near-total control in solitary confinement units can cause people to “gradually lose the ability to initiate or to control their own behavior, or to organize their personal lives.”

If prison is meant to rehabilitate those sent to it, holding people in solitary confinement is the last thing you would want to do — the conditions are the most removed from the outside world. A man who spent five years in solitary confinement said that, even compared to regular prison, solitary “feels like losing your freedom.”

Solitary Confinement in New York

A 2019 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) offers a comprehensive overview of solitary confinement in New York state. Sanctions can be split into two categories: Special Housing Unit (SHU) and Keeplock.

SHU (New York’s euphemism for solitary confinement; more aptly known as “the Box”) is the most restrictive setting found in the state. SHU cells are typically the size of a small elevator. People in SHUs spend twenty-three to twenty-four hours a day in isolation, locked behind solid doors that significantly limit communication with anyone outside of the cell. They “have severely limited access to personal property, and basic benefits like calling family or purchasing snacks and hygiene items in prison stores are restricted.” People held in SHU are also cut off from all out-of-cell programming.

Keeplock sanctions are typically served in a general population cell, but they may be served in a dedicated Keeplock or SHU cell. While people in Keeplock are allowed to keep more personal property and access basic services, they are also isolated for up to twenty-three hours a day.

On March 1, the state corrections department reported that 1,629 people were being held in SHUs. Data on the number of people held in Keeplock is not reported, but historically, roughly two-thirds of solitary sanctions were for Keeplock.

In 2019, the average length of a SHU sanction was 105 days — seven times the fifteen days the United Nations defines as torture. Dozens of people have been in SHU for years. In 2018, 2,600 people served more than ninety days in SHU, 131 of whom served more than a year.

Racial disparities in solitary confinement exceed even those of the prison system as a whole. As of February 1, black people made up 58 percent of those in SHU cells, despite making up 48 and 18 percent of the prison and state populations respectively. And 82 percent of all people held in SHU cells are black or Latino. The racial disparity in solitary usage is actually slightly worse than it was prior to a massive 2016 New York Times investigation into racial bias in New York’s prisons.

What Does HALT Do?

The most significant component of the legislation restricts the usage of segregated confinement to fifteen consecutive days, or twenty total days in a sixty-day period. This cap makes New York the first state to codify into law the UN’s Nelson Mandela Rules. Additionally, HALT expands the definition of segregated confinement to include anyone isolated for seventeen or more hours per day; requires at least five hours daily of out-of-cell time for recreation and rehabilitative programming; mandates the creation of Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU); and prohibits punitive limitations on services, treatment, or basic needs; among other requirements. The act also prohibits solitary confinement for anyone under twenty-two or over fifty-four, along with anyone pregnant or with a disability.

The NYCLU report authors added up the total impact of the different HALT provisions and estimated that it would reduce the total daily SHU population by 88 percent.

Much of the harm of solitary confinement comes from the extreme social isolation people experience, beyond the harms from simple confinement in a tiny space. To address this, HALT requires that all recreation be in a congregate setting, unless it would be unsafe to do so.

Perhaps the most legitimate justification for further separating incarcerated individuals is to ensure the safety of the others around them. The act defines the rare cases where segregated confinement can be extended, in which the “person poses an extraordinary and unacceptable risk of imminent harm” to others. These decisions must be reviewed by the prison leadership and communicated in writing to the person being isolated.

In cases where people must be separated to ensure the safety of those around them, HALT focuses on separation without social isolation and material deprivation.

People in protective custody, i.e., those being protected from others, must be held in an RRU at a minimum. Previously, some people held in the SHU were there for protective custody, with more out of cell time and privileges, but experienced extreme isolation nonetheless.

The Path to HALT

HALT grew out of a coalition of survivors, impacted families, attorneys, mental health experts, and concerned citizens. Every advocate I spoke with said the thing that set the HALT campaign apart was how firmly it centered the voices of people directly impacted by solitary confinement — those who had survived it.

A number of organizations were most commonly cited as crucial to the passage of HALT during my conversations. Since 2012, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) has spearheaded the #HALTsolitary campaign, which organizes victims of solitary confinement to support the passage of HALT. The NYCLU, the state affiliate of the ACLU, sued the state to limit its usage of solitary confinement. It also produced groundbreaking reports on the use of solitary confinement in New York, recommending policy reforms largely embodied in HALT. VOCAL-NY organized formerly incarcerated people to fight for HALT, along with many other reforms to the criminal legal system.

Activists engaged in direct actions across the state, literally mapping out where they had support. One longtime activist wagered that the campaign had organized actions in most of the districts of legislators who ultimately supported the bill. He also estimated that the campaign had over a thousand meetings with legislators where directly impacted people were in the room.

This dedication was on display at an action outside of Cuomo’s NYC office, where activists stayed overnight on Monday to pressure the governor to sign HALT. Supporters spent twenty-four hours on the Midtown sidewalk, physically demonstrating their commitment to the bill. (One wise couple brought a Nintendo Switch to pass the time.)

Activists gather for a HALT Solitary action outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York City office on March 29, 2021. (Garrison Lovely)

At 7 p.m., people shared stories of their time in solitary, surrounded by activists holding headstones bearing names of lives lost to solitary confinement. The stories, once you’ve heard them, are hard to ignore.

Anisah Sabur, a statewide organizer for the campaign, spent years in solitary confinement. She described the arbitrary nature of solitary sentences:

You go to solitary for the most minute stuff. You don’t wanna respond, you don’t wanna talk to nobody, you go to solitary . . . You got too many stamps in your commissary locker, you go to solitary. I borrow a bar of soap from my sister, we both go to solitary . . . And they leave us there.

Sabur relayed the unique horror of experiencing solitary confinement as a woman, guarded mostly by men. “Don’t be on your cycle, because this is when they really degrade you. You have to stay for days in that blood, without a shower, without the proper, necessary sanitaries.”

Referring to the action, Sabur said, “This is our healing process. We are going to stand out here until he signs this bill. And then we’re going to start to get the resources that we need from the inside out and begin to help our sisters and brothers heal from this torturous practice.”

Roger Clark, an organizer with #HALTSolitary and VOCAL-NY, spent five consecutive years in solitary confinement. He told me over the phone that the experience (unsurprisingly) made him extremely depressed. To pass the time, he read books (a privilege not afforded to everyone) and made a chessboard out of a manila envelope to play with his neighbor.

Although you’re legally entitled to one hour of recreation daily, in reality, it’s not guaranteed. Clark described the routine and arbitrary abuses of power that people in solitary confinement are subjected to: correction officers would open windows in the dead of winter or leave them closed in the heat of summer (there was no air conditioning in his unit). “Sometimes really bad officers will assault you and blame you for assaulting them,” he said.

Large actions led by the #HALTSolitary campaign in Albany brought similar stories to the halls of power. Victor Pate is a longtime statewide organizer of the campaign. He told me that key tools employed by activists gave people a glimpse into life in the Box. Doug Van Zandt, Ben’s father, built a mock solitary cell out of wood and plexiglass. The cell was used in demonstrations at the Capitol. Legislators and visitors could step inside and listen to sounds of screaming recorded in a real solitary cell. Virtual reality goggles also gave people an immersive view into a cell, narrated by interviews with Pate and other survivors.

Supporters occupied the Capitol rotunda, leading chants outside the Senate chambers while the body was in session. At the end of the 2019 legislative session, activists organized a weeklong hunger strike in support of HALT. Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the NYCLU, described how, in the intense final days of the legislative session where people sometimes leave the Capitol at 3 a.m., the dedication of the hunger strike stood out to legislators and staff.

Ultimately, the bill didn’t have the votes to override Cuomo’s promised veto.

When I asked advocates why they think things worked out this time, almost all cited the summer uprisings sparked by the police murder of George Floyd. Movements like Black Lives Matter had opened up space for more radical ideas, and the public was more aware of the injustices inherent in our criminal legal system. Additionally, the years of work educating lawmakers and the public about the horrors of solitary confinement had a cumulative effect.

This is also the first legislative session since state Democrats won a supermajority of both houses, allowing them to pass legislation without needing Cuomo’s buy-in.

Efforts to restrict the usage of solitary confinement have historically been strenuously opposed by the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), which has argued that limiting solitary confinement will increase violence against correction officers. COBA has also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Cuomo’s campaigns. (COBA’s longtime president, Norman Seabrook, was convicted on corruption charges in 2018.) COBA NYC did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

A 2015 study exploring whether punitive solitary confinement decreases violence within an entire state’s prisons concluded that sentences didn’t play a role in future misconduct, including violent behavior.

A quantitative study on the effects of solitary confinement on recidivism also found that people held in solitary were more likely to be reconvicted of a violent crime, when controlling for “past offending record, current offense, and behavior while incarcerated.” A meta-analysis of similar studies found associations between the usage of solitary confinement and violent recidivism, rearrest, and reincarceration, even when controlling for other variables.

In fact, we don’t need to guess at what prison without long-term solitary confinement looks like.

Other Models of Restrictions on Solitary Confinement

Less than a decade ago, Colorado relied heavily on solitary confinement in its prisons. But in September 2017, the state ended the use of long-term solitary confinement, limiting its use to fifteen days at a time and requiring at least four hours per day out of cell for recreation or group classes.

The change came at the direction of the state prisons chief, Rick Raemisch, who spent twenty hours inside a solitary cell in 2014.

In a New York Times op-ed, Raemisch announced the changes. In 2012, Colorado kept 1,500 people — nearly 7 percent of the prison population — in solitary confinement on any given day. The average stay was twenty-three months. About half of people kept in solitary confinement were being released directly into the community, with no reintegration. In the op-ed describing his night in solitary, Raemisch writes that solitary confinement

allows a prison to run more efficiently for a period of time, but by placing a difficult offender in isolation you have not solved the problem — only delayed or more likely exacerbated it, not only for the prison, but ultimately for the public.

Colorado began by banning solitary confinement in two prisons devoted to people with mental health issues. Raemisch wrote in the ACLU blog that “assaults, forced cell entries, and the use of heavy restraints declined by 40 percent.”

In July 2019, New Jersey passed legislation limiting the use of solitary confinement to twenty consecutive days. A similar bill passed the legislature in 2016 before getting vetoed by then-governor Chris Christie. In 2016, New Jersey had the fourteenth highest rate of solitary confinement usage (New York was seventh).

A number of other states have curtailed the use of solitary confinement as a result of legislation or lawsuits as well. Despite this progress, the United States remains one of the most extreme practitioners of solitary confinement in the world, both in terms of total population and the length of sentences. An estimated eighty thousand people are being held in solitary confinement in the United States.

Germany limits solitary confinement sentences to four weeks (with the possibility of extension) but uses the practice sparingly. A report from the Vera Institute explains, “Officers are trained to treat inmates with respect, provide segregated offenders regular human contact, provide offenders a measure of personal autonomy, and give them access to programs that will provide opportunities to earn their way out of isolation.”

An American visitor to German prisons wondered what they did to handle incarcerated people who have assaulted others. She wrote:

The startling answer to those questions is that they don’t have a whole lot of discipline problems in German prisons. The staff are professionally trained in communication skills as well as security, and treat prisoners with dignity and respect. Conflicts between prisoners or between prisoners and staff are approached with an eye toward resolution and instruction for more effective problem solving . . . [Other] disciplinary measures are meted out judiciously and incrementally, and warnings are liberally given.

Solitary confinement is used only as a last resort and only for as long as necessary.

HALT represents the greatest victory in the fight against prolonged solitary confinement in the United States. And now, activists have an eye on broadening its protections and extending them even further — because no one should be subjected to torture.