Solitary confinement is in widespread use in prisons across the United States and, in New York State alone, more than 3,000 inmates are isolated in 6-by-10 cells for over 23 hours a day. (CNS photo)
Solitary confinement is in widespread use in prisons across the United States and, in New York State alone, more than 3,000 inmates are isolated in 6-by-10 cells for over 23 hours a day. (CNS photo)

The numbers are so staggering that it has been called “torture.”

Solitary confinement is in widespread use in prisons across the United States and, in New York State alone, more than 3,000 inmates are isolated in 6-by-10 cells for over 23 hours a day.

But the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which has not yet made its way to the New York State House or Senate floor, is looking to change that.  “Long-term use of solitary confinement is a form of torture, yet it continues to be widely practiced nationally and in New York, despite some recent reforms in our state. Inmates don’t surrender their basic human dignity when the prison doors close,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, which put out a memorandum in support of HALT in January.

“We can protect society, and protect those inside the prison without wide-scale use of confinement in special housing units, which leads to all sorts of mental health issues, including paranoia, depression and suicidal thoughts. It creates a less stable inmate population and, ultimately, creates a less safe society when those inmates are subsequently released, sometimes directly from solitary confinement.”

The New York State Catholic Conference, the state Council of Churches and the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, as well as other Christian, Muslim and Jewish organizations all endorse the bill. If enacted into law, the bill would limit the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to 15 days, which is in accordance with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, as well as offer alternatives to segregated housing units (SHU).

The report said anything over 15 days is a form of torture.  The same sentiments were echoed by Pope Francis as far back as 2014, calling solitary confinement “one form of torture is … confinement in high security prisons …the lack of sensory stimuli, the total impossibility of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings induce mental and physical suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, weight loss, and significantly increase the suicidal tendency.”

And in a 2016 op-ed in the Albany Times Union, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany wrote, “Social science has affirmed that solitary confinement works against the purpose of rehabilitation and restorative justice. It also works against the purpose of improving public safety, both inside our prisons and jails and in our communities. For all Americans committed to building a safer, healthier society, we cannot ignore the mental illness, debilitating trauma and recidivism that are the hallmarks of placing inmates in solitary confinement.”

According to the website nysaic.org, which seeks alternatives to solitary confinement in New York State, “In 2015, the U.S. government voted for, and the entire United Nations adopted, the Mandela Rules, which prohibit any person from being held in solitary beyond 15 days. Colorado has implemented a 15-day limit on solitary and reduced the number of people in solitary from 1,500 to 18. New York currently places no limit on the total time a person can spend in isolated confinement.”

Last week, a group of faith leaders took to the Capital in support of the bill. In 2016, after a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union led to a $62 million settlement, the state made reforms to limit the solitary confinement of pregnant women, youth and the disabled. This bill aims for even more reforms. In Florida and Virginia, there currently are lawsuits against the use of solitary confinement which critics say, disproportionally affects people of color — for example, African-Americans make up 13% of the population of New York state, but represent 50% of the prison population and 60% of the people held in solitary confinement in New York — leads to numerous psychological problems, as well as an increase in recidivism and violent behavior.  Poust added, “More than 30 percent of all suicides in New York prisons from 2014 to 2016 took place in solitary, though only 6 to 8 percent of the prison population were in solitary.”

In a Catholic News Service story from March, even the great Ben Franklin figured this out some 200 years or more ago. The story read: “Franklin and several Quaker leaders first instituted solitary confinement in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, believing that total isolation and silence would lead to penitence — from which we get the name ‘penitentiary.’

“Instead, enforced solitary confinement led to severe mental health problems for prisoners, including insanity. ‘I believe it ... to be cruel and wrong,’ said novelist Charles Dickens after a visit to a Pennsylvania penitentiary that had nothing but solitary confinement cells. ‘I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.’ The Quakers later apologized for their advocacy of long-term solitary confinement.” Yet the practice has endured for centuries. “As Catholics, we have a special obligation to be concerned with the plight of prisoners,” Poust said. “After all, visiting the imprisoned was on Jesus’ short list of actions in Matthew that when we do it, we do it for him.”