New York State Bar Association Urges Reform of Solitary Confinement

From New York State Bar Association

ALBANY, NY — The New York State Bar Association this week renewed its call for significant reductions in the use of solitary confinement of inmates and new protocols for separating violent and nonviolent prisoners.

“New York’s correctional system makes too much use of solitary confinement,” said State Bar President David M. Schraver of Rochester (Nixon Peabody). “Prolonged solitary confinement is inhumane and not worthy of our justice system.”

Solitary confinement, according to several studies, has been shown to have an impact on inmate suicide rates, particularly among those suffering from mental illness. A 1996 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that “based chiefly on overwhelming consistent research, isolation should be avoided whenever possible.”

In addition, solitary confinement promotes racial tensions in prison and contributes to additional violent behavior within the prison after isolated inmates are returned to the general population, the report states.

One inmate who was subjected to long-term solitary confinement, quoted in a report by Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, compared being released into the general population after years in isolation to “leaving a hungry dog in a cage and then releasing it. … There is nothing beneficial or therapeutic regarding this confinement.”

Among the recommendations of the State Bar Association report are:

• Solitary confinement should be profoundly restricted in state prisons and locally operated jails by adopting strict standards to ensure it is used in very limited and legitimate circumstances.

• Prison and jail officials should adopt stringent criteria for separating violent and nonviolent prisoners; set standards for ensuring separation under the “least restrictive conditions practicable;” identify inmates who should not be in solitary confinement; and reduce the number of Special Housing Unit beds.

• Solitary confinement sentences should be limited to no more than 15 days.

• The state Legislature should enact measures to restrict the use of solitary confinement in state and local facilities across the state. In addition, it should conduct public hearings to examine the harmful effects of long-term solitary confinement.

The report is available at www.nysba.org/substantivereports.