Re­duc­ing soli­tary con­fine­ment makes pris­ons safer

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - By Re­bekah Kim­ble Re­bekah Kim­ble is the pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor at Houghton Col­lege for Hope House, a de­gree pro­gram for re­turn­ing cit­i­zens.

I was sur­prised, upon read­ing the March 20 is­sue of The Buf­falo News, to learn that “soli­tary con­fine­ment in New York State does not ex­ist.” As the di­rec­tor of a col­lege pro­gram for re­turn­ing cit­i­zens, I know some peo­ple who would dis­agree.

Many of my stu­dents spent time in soli­tary con­fine­ment, though they tend to re­fer to it as “the hole,” “keeplock,” “ad­min­is­tra­tive seg­re­ga­tion,” or “SHU.” Re­gard­less of the ter­mi­nol­ogy, the def­i­ni­tion re­mains the same: At var­i­ous points dur­ing their in­car­cer­a­tion, my stu­dents spent al­most the en­tire day in a cell, with­out mean­ing­ful hu­man con­tact or pro­grams.

Spe­cial hous­ing units (SHU) are used as pun­ish­ment for non-vi­o­lent (and of­ten triv­ial) vi­o­la­tions of rules. The New York Civil Lib­er­ties Union an­a­lyzed data from New York’s Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions and found that over 80 per­cent of vi­o­la­tions re­sult­ing in soli­tary con­fine­ment were for non­vi­o­lent rule in­frac­tions.

Statis­tics from states that have re­duced, or even elim­i­nated, SHU show that pris­ons there are ac­tu­ally safer. When Mis­sis­sippi re­duced the pop­u­la­tion of a seg­re­gated hous­ing unit from 1,000 to 150 and later closed the unit, it re­ported a 70 per­cent re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence.

Statis­tics show that re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive pro­gram­ming, not SHU, re­duces vi­o­lence. In San Fran­cisco jails, the Re­solve to Stop the Vi­o­lence Project im­mersed par­tic­i­pants in an in­ten­sive pro­gram of group dis­cus­sions, classes, coun­sel­ing and meet­ings with vic­tims of vi­o­lence. The pro­gram re­sulted in a 25-fold re­duc­tion in vi­o­lent in­ci­dents and a five-fold re­duc­tion in re­ar­rests for vi­o­lent crimes.

In New York, the Merle Cooper pro­gram pro­vided group ses­sions, in­ten­sive pro­gram­ming, and peer-led ini­tia­tives to in­di­vid­u­als at Clin­ton Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity. Par­tic­i­pants could earn un­locked cells for good be­hav­ior.

The re­sult? Clin­ton Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity, con­sid­ered one of the most vi­o­lent pris­ons in New York, had high lev­els of re­ported safety. Par­tic­i­pants, cor­rec­tion of­fi­cers and ad­min­is­tra­tors alike at­trib­uted it to the Merle Cooper pro­gram.

The Hu­mane Al­ter­na­tives to LongTerm Soli­tary Con­fine­ment bill (also known as the HALT bill) rec­og­nizes that SHU in­creases vi­o­lence while re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive pro­gram­ming de­creases it. This bill would con­tinue to al­low cor­rec­tion of­fi­cers to sep­a­rate in­di­vid­u­als who truly pose a risk of harm to oth­ers or who need pro­tec­tion. But, un­like the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, it would re­quire that these in­di­vid­u­als re­ceive mean­ing­ful hu­man en­gage­ment and out-of-cell pro­gram­ing aimed at ad­dress­ing the rea­sons for sep­a­ra­tion.

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