Solitary Confinement Is Torture, No Matter Where it Happens

Olean, New York (population 14,452) is about what you would expect of a small town that is both Appalachian and located in the Rust Belt.  It has lost some 40% of its population since 1950, and the median household income is $10,000 lower than that of Oakland’s. It’s mostly white; Hispanics make up about 1% of the population.

Yet Olean is home to a large, state-of-the art jail, and this jail – an Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center – was built to hold Latino immigrants.  I was thinking about Olean recently because of this New York Times article on undocumented immigrants being held in solitary confinement, “often for weeks.” 

The implicit shock of the Times article was not that solitary confinement was being used in American detention facilities, but that it was being used on so many people who had never been convicted of a criminal violation and who aren’t even believed to be a threat. 

Solitary has been big in California news in recent years because of a hunger strike by prisoners protesting the practice (more on that below.)  But since reading the Times piece, my mind has been wandering back to this question: who else should we be including when we talk about solitary confinement?

The Face of Solitary

Sometime around 2007, I traveled to Olean to meet a Mexican woman being detained there, whom I’ll call Diana. 

I was working, at the time, for a non-profit law office serving migrant farm workers.  I was going to meet Diana because I believed she might be a victim of human trafficking—or, more likely, based on our information, she might have been aiding in the trafficking of other women and now be interested in giving us evidence to help protect them and punish the bigger traffickers behind her.  Given these two possible scenarios, I was nervous heading down.

After winding for two hours through beautiful but mostly empty green hills and fields, I was stunned by the size—and the sheer newness—of my destination. 

This expansive and shiny jail was, in essence, a gift from the federal government.  The ICE detention center in Batavia – another depressed small town (population 14,565) but one just 30 minutes from my Rochester office – was so often full that the feds had begun shipping detained immigrants to whatever facilities would take them.

Small towns were happy to meet this demand, as immigrant detainees—just like regular American prisoners—mean more money to the local governments housing them.  I remember the guards in Olean being quite candid about the fact that their jail had been upgraded with the intention of taking in the overflow from ICE.

(While writing this blog post, I checked with Lewis Papenfuse, my former boss and the current co-director of the Worker Justice Center of New York.  He confirmed that ICE is still shipping detainees to far-away places.)

As I waited for Diana to be brought from her cell to a visitation room, a nice guard—a white, middle-aged woman—approached me with grave concern.

She and the other guards were very worried about Diana, who appeared depressed and unhealthy.  Diana was clearly lonely: because the ICE overflow program was in its infancy here, she was the only female immigrant detainee.  No one on the staff could communicate with her directly; once a week, a Spanish-speaking ICE employee from Batavia would come down to check on her health.

I came to meet Diana with a list of very serious questions, none of which would be easy to get at: Was she a victim of trafficking?  If not, was she an accomplice to trafficking?  Would she help us find and help other undocumented women like her, who were trapped in a terrible situation? 

When she was brought into the room, I lost all hope of getting these answers in an instant.  Diana was a small woman to start with, surely less than five feet tall, but her defeated posture would have made her seem tiny in any case.  She was horribly pale, and her eyes showed only fear and confusion.  She spent the whole interview crying, and I drove the two hours back to Rochester having learned nothing.

What Solitary Does, and Why We Do It

The Times article concludes by quoting a special rapporteur for the United Nations, who states that solitary confinement represents a breach of America’s obligations under international law against torture. 

In 2009, Atul Gawande, a medical doctor and regular contributor to the New Yorker, wrote an essay in that magazine arguing that prolonged solitary confinement is, indeed, torture. 

It’s hard for anyone outside of confinement to grasp just how quickly the human brain collapses when faced with isolation, but Gawande’s interviews with survivors of solitary make it painfully clear.  The one that sticks with me best is the Massachusetts prisoner who started to destroy his toilet and flood his cell with human waste on a regular basis, because this would bring the guards: his only chance at human contact.

California’s prison system has long been recognized as one of the harshest in the country.  Conditions in the Golden State’s prisons are horrible enough that, in 2011, 50-plus men at Pelican Bay State Prison located in Crescent City (population 7,643) were willing to risk their lives in a three-week hunger strike to protest the frequent use of solitary confinement as a punishment.  By the end of their strike, they reported more than 6,500 inmates were fasting in solidarity, in California alone.

It’s easy to guess at the line of thinking that lands convicted felons in solitary: these people are in prison because they’ve been found to be dangerous; we can’t risk their causing harm to guards or other inmates; if they’re alone 23 hours a day, they can’t hurt anyone. 

But this isn’t how solitary is used in practice.  At Pelican Bay, solitary was a punishment for inmates who wouldn’t divulge the gang affiliations of other inmates—meaning, in practice, that inmates with no such knowledge might end up in solitary if they didn’t fabricate charges against their neighbors.

As for the ICE detainees, the vast majority of whom have never been accused of a violent crime, the Times reports that ICE uses solitary as a punishment for those guilty of “breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights.”   

The use of solitary at ICE detention centers goes far beyond the strictly punitive, though: the agency also places in solitary those inmates it wants to protect from the general population, including gay people, Muslims, and people showing signs of mental illness.

Given how widespread the practice of solitary confinement is, and how stubbornly prison officials nationwide have held onto it in the face of mounting criticism from prison reform and civil rights advocates, we need to look at what’s driving it.  

Solitary confinement doesn’t make the public safer; a 2006 study suggests it leads to higher rates of recidivism.  The strongest rationale for solitary can be found in the immigration policy that has built big jails in places like Olean: to make certain people a lot of money.

It costs more to lock people up like this—as much as 50% more per day.  Mississippi, of all places, has cut millions of dollars from its corrections budget by reducing the use of solitary

Meanwhile, New York, a state with a powerful prison guards’ union and one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country, is fighting a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union that would abolish use of solitary as a punishment for minor troublemaking, such as littering.  The NYCLU says about 70,000 cases of solitary in a four-year period in New York fell into this category.

Solitary Confinement by Other Names

Diana was not, technically, in solitary confinement.  People like her are not even counted in investigations like the one in the Times, or the lawsuit by the NYCLU.  As far as ICE was concerned, Diana was a regular detainee who just happened to have a cellblock to herself.

So was the Mexican woman I met some time later, in Wampsville, N.Y. (population 543)—another case of a lone Spanish-speaking female inmate.  From what we could tell, she was being held because her boyfriend’s other lover had called the cops and told them she was illegal.  The guards in Wampsville were not nice.

Then there was the Mexican man whom I was tracking down on behalf of his worried brother.  He wasn’t in Batavia, or Olean, or Wampsville.  He was, it transpired, in an ICE facility in Louisiana.  There were severe limits on his ability to make phone calls or send letters, and he hadn’t yet figured out how to contact his brother and let him know he was still alive.  (Through a series of phone calls and letters, I eventually managed to put them in touch with one another.)  He didn’t need to be placed alone in a windowless room to be cut off from the world.

I was badly shaken by my meeting with Diana, even though, looking back, I still suspect she had participated in some terrible crimes.  It just didn’t matter anymore.  She was in no condition to help anyone even if she had wanted to  and trying to punish her further, after her time in detention, would have been nonsensical: she was already a crushed human being.

Abolishing the use of solitary confinement in prisons would be a big step towards ending torture in this country.  Taking it out of immigrant detention centers would be another.  But as long as we’re holding thousands of people in complete isolation from their friends and families, we’ll have a long way to go.

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