Last month I was once again part of a team that spent a weekend inside a local prison conducting a retreat for the inmates there. We always learn a little more about their lives behind bars, and I am always dismayed at some of the stories about the prison's use of solitary confinement, also known as isolated confinement and known in slang as "the box."
In solitary confinement, inmates spend 23 hours a day in a cell no bigger than a parking space. Some inmates spend months, years and even decades at a time without any meaningful human contact or programming. This practice severely restricts access to personal hygiene, physical exercise, human contact and religious worship. Estimates are that there are 4,000 inmates across the State in solitary confinement on any given day - upwards of 35 percent higher than the average of other states.
In addition, many are held in isolation in local city and county jails. Like other parts of our judicial system, people of color seem to be particularly targeted. Black people represent about 18 percent of all people in New York State, but represent 50 percent of those incarcerated and sixty percent of those held in solitary confinement.
Even more startling might be that five out of six sentences that result in isolated confinement in NY state are for non-violent conduct, frequently rules violations. Corrections officers are sometimes not sufficiently trained to address people's needs or problematic behavior, and as a result, the default response is to write a disciplinary "ticket" for an alleged rule violation.
Solitary confinement is but one example of the issue that crime and criminal justice pose for us as Catholics. The U.S. bishops addressed this moral issue in their document "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration" issued in 2000. They note that "our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings."
In 2014, Pope Francis stated, "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."
Currently there is a bill in both the State Senate and the State Assembly that would begin to eliminate this practice. The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act is in the Senate as S.1623 Sepulveda and in the Assembly as A.2500 Aubry. These bills are supported by the New York Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church.
In their memo of support for these bills, the conference stated, "The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would limit the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives to such confinement."
The bill would limit the time any person can be separated from the general population to 15 consecutive days and then be placed in a separate secure residential rehabilitation unit with six hours per day of out-of-cell programming plus one hour of out-of-cell recreation.
Also, it would restrict the use of isolated confinement only to persons who are found to have engaged in more serious acts such as physical violence, abuse or weapons possession. The bill would also prohibit confining those under 21, over 55 or persons with disabilities.
Write or call your State Senator or Assembly Member today to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.