The Era of Solitary Confinement is Nearly Over

A New York legal case could impact us all.

For quite a while, a common way of dealing with prisoners in New York state has included locking them in solitary confinement, sometimes for years at a time. The conditions are brutal, with little or no human contact, a diet of sparse meals, and 23 hours per day spent in a 6-by-10-foot cell. Now, a recent settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union might change that.


The state of New York is expected to reduce the number of its inmates by at least 25 percent, as well as reduce the amount of time those prisoners can spend in solitary confinement. A host of other social privileges are supposed to be reintroduced to those who do spend time in solitary confinement.

The case is specific to New York's state prison system, but it's lit a nationwide debate over the suitability of employing solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Studies of both humans and other primates show that prolonged periods of isolation can cause permanent changes to one’s psyche, even hallucinations. Even if prisoners “act out,” surely the irreparable mental harm induced by solitary confinement is an inhumane response.


The main plaintiff in the New York lawsuit, Leroy Peoples, is a prime example of why we need to get rid of solitary confinement. He was kept in confinement for 780 straight days, not for any sort of violent behavior, but because he had filed false documents. He described the harrowing experience as “mental torture.”

The dangerous reality of the prison system is that they exist away from the public eye. It’s easy to forget how many people in the U.S. are left to languish in tiny cells completely by themselves, and it’s easy to not think about what that actually means. We can theorize and make policy about solitary confinement, but to actually feel that pain must be something entirely different.

The settlement on the New York prison system comes after a similar legal case in California mandated changes to its solitary confinement policies. With two large prison systems seeing these restrictions, it might be time to let go of harsh solitary confinement practices across the board.

 Image Credit: Scott Richardson via Shutterstock

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Stefani is a writer and urban planner based in Oakland, CA. She holds a master’s in City and Regional Planning from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s in Human Biology from Stanford University. In her free time she is often found reading diverse literature, writing stories, or enjoying the outdoors.  Follow her on Twitter: @stefanicox

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