Solitary is torture, yet NYC union defends it
Bernard Kerik, who headed New York City’s jails and then the Police Department before a felony conviction landed him in federal prison for four years, is reinventing himself as a prison reformer.
In his new book, “From Jailer to Jailed,” Kerik describes the brutality of solitary confinement. Serious reformers are also zeroing in on the irreversible harm done to prisoners — especially teenagers — thrown in the hole for long periods. But in New York, union resistance may stand in the way.
Kerik, who is bitter about his time behind bars, says “every prosecutor, judge, correction officer, jail and prison official should have to spend 72 hours in the hole to see what it’s like.”
Not necessary. Solitary’s harmful effects are undisputed.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy testified to Congress on March 23 that solitary “literally drives men mad.” Even the television series “Law & Order” has dramatized the harm.
Solitary means being kept in a cell the size of a parking space 23 hours a day with meals delivered through a slot in the door. The effects are gruesome.
Some inmates bite off their own fingers, one digit at a time, castrate themselves or commit suicide. Those who make it out of the hole can be scarred for life, unable to make eye contact or talk to other human beings.
Solitary “is not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story,” says Robert Hood, former warden of a federal prison in Colorado.
Curbing solitary isn’t about going soft on violent criminals. It’s about stopping permanent physical harm to the most vulnerable prisoners.
Last August, US Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara released a report on Rikers Island full of horror stories about teenagers brutalized there.
It documented that on a given day, as many as a quarter of the 16- and 17-year-olds there are in solitary, sometimes just for shouting insults or obscenities.
They’re in the hole for as long as 200 days in several cases, and over 1,000 days in one case.
After so long, a teenager’s brain is chopped meat.
Bharara recently got city correction officials to agree to stop putting inmates under 18 in solitary and to shorten time in the hole for adults.
New York state, facing a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union, also agreed to stop putting adolescents or pregnant inmates into solitary.
But will union resistance thwart these deals?
Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, has made it clear he’s opposed. Seabrook fumes that “we didn’t sign up to be mental-health instructors, we didn’t sign up to be clinicians, we didn’t sign up to be none of those things.”
Seabrook considers city Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who took over a year ago, a softie and insists, “We don’t need a reformer, we need law and order.”
That unenlightened view ignores the fact that jails became warehouses for the mentally ill once New York and other states closed psychiatric facilities in the 1960s.
Thirty-eight percent of inmates in New York’s jails are mentally ill.
Seabrook’s members get paid too much — twice the national median for correction officers — to be anything less than cooperative.
(Those high salaries and benefits for correction officers are the chief reason New York City spends nearly $100,000 a year per inmate, compared with half that amount in Chicago or Los Angeles, and only $29,000 in federal prisons.)
The union needs to embrace reform and train correction officers to cope with mentally ill prisoners. Oregon, for example, is already providing such training.
For centuries, we’ve struggled with why we imprison.
To punish evildoers and keep them locked away, of course. But we also harbor hope that some prisoners will be rehabilitated. Voices of conscience — Dorothea Dix, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Johnny Cash — have long railed about solitary confinement as torture.
Yet 80,000 prisoners are in solitary in the United States on any given day. Sometimes it’s needed to control vicious prisoners, but solitary’s overuse undermines any hope of rehabilitation. You might as well throw away the key.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.