Opinion Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. It’s time for all states to ban it.

(Julie Lai for The Washington Post)

Tammie Gregg is deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Earlier this month, New York enacted a law affirming what medical experts, human rights advocates and survivors have been saying for years: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture.

With legislators’ passage of the Halt Solitary Confinement Act, New York became the first state to codify the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela rules, which ban the use of solitary confinement after 15 consecutive days. This is incredible progress for New York, but work cannot stop there. Banning torture in any one state is simply not enough. It’s barely a beginning.

The United States has long been an extreme global outlier in the use of solitary confinement. Before the onset of covid-19, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people were held in solitary each day in U.S. jails and prisons — a number approximately equal to or greater than the total prison populations of many large countries, including France, Turkey and Spain. The pandemic led to a sharp increase in the use of solitary confinement in the United States, with more than 300,000 people held in these cruel and inhumane conditions as of June 2020.

Solitary confinement is an indictment of the United States’ criminal legal system, and its use is not an anomaly. Solitary is a microcosm of the ways U.S. prisons and jails are set up to dehumanize and traumatize people, without the slightest concern for their rehabilitation, their ability to reenter society, their well-being or the well-being of their families. The harms are particularly severe for people who are pregnant, people of color, individuals with disabilities — including mental illness or intellectual disabilities — young people, and incarcerated seniors, immigrants, and transgender people.

The facts are appalling. Despite making up just 18 percent of New Yorkers, Black people represented 58 percent of those held in solitary confinement in the state before passage of the Halt Act. The situation is hardly better in other states. In neighboring Connecticut, for instance, where Black and Hispanic or Latinx people make up just 29 percent of the population, they represented 85 percent of those held in solitary confinement as of 2019.

In many prisons and jails, trans people can be placed in solitary confinement against their will solely because of their gender identity. In some states, it is legal to place people in solitary as punishment for testing positive for HIV. And despite a vast body of research demonstrating that solitary confinement is dangerous for people with mental illness, corrections officers around the United States continue to hold people with mental illness in solitary confinement for months and years at a time.

We know that racism and bias, when mixed with unchecked power, can lead to death for incarcerated Black and Latinx people. In 2015, at age 22, Kalief Browder tragically ended his life two years after suffering beatings, two years of solitary confinement, and egregious conditions during the three years he was incarcerated on Rikers Island in New York City — all because of a baseless accusation that he had stolen a backpack. In 2015, Jason Echevarria, a 25-year-old who was experiencing mental health challenges, died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island after swallowing a concentrated ball of soap.

Thankfully, the Halt Act prohibits the use of solitary for young people like Browder, banning it for those under age 22, and for people with serious mental illness like Echevarria. But far too many people like Browder and Echevarria are in danger across the United States. Long-term solitary remains a national, systemic injustice, and the Biden administration and our federally elected officials must take action.

A road map to reform is already in place. For nearly a decade, survivors of solitary confinement and their family members led the fight to end long-term solitary in New York jails and prisons. Their advocacy is a model for other state-based reformers and has set the stage for significant progress in the near future.

The Biden administration can help lead the way by finalizing new rules prohibiting the use of prolonged solitary confinement for all people held in federal custody, and by offering state governments incentives to do the same.

For far too long, the U.S. criminal legal system has created unspeakable cycles of violence, brutality and trauma for vulnerable incarcerated people, and the systematic, discretionary use of solitary confinement is perhaps the most flagrant example of this abuse. New York has shown the nation that a different path is possible. Now it is time for the rest of the country to follow suit.

Read more:

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Eunice Cho: Biden is ending the Justice Department’s contracts with private prisons. Now end ICE’s.

Nora V. Demleitner: Gov. Northam should release some state prisoners