Reducing solitary confinement makes prisons safer
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.