The Death of Good Citizenship: The Real Tragedy of the Overuse of Solitary Confinement

The number of inmates in solitary confinement in the State of New York hit a three-year high this past September -- over 4,000 prisoners. Prisons blame reform for this increase; the number of non-violent prisoners is slowly dwindling because of formal decarceration efforts and the inmates left behind are a group much more likely to be violent. They're fighting the guards and themselves and getting tossed in the hole.

That excuse doesn't wash with people like me who've been in solitary confinement or "seg." During my six-plus year stint at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, I spent a total of 67 days in segregation. Twenty-one days were spent in a punitive segregation status - accused and found guilty of misconduct - and 46 days were on administrative detention or non-disciplinary status because I reported sexual assault, simple assault, and abusive behavior by a guard.

Any quoted number of inmates in solitary confinement hides a more disturbing reality: many people in seg have not been accused, much less found guilty, of misconduct. And by detaining inmates on non-disciplinary status in segregation, prisons actually discourage good behavior from inmates.

As a practical matter, non-disciplinary status or 'administrative detention' in solitary confinement means that a prisoner has been placed under investigation, usually for one of three reasons: 1) an allegation of gang affiliation; 2) her own report of misconduct by staff or another inmate or 3) being the victim of misconduct if the victim is not the reporter.

One of the few times this correctional reality has been acknowledged was when the Uptown People's Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections this summer on behalf of the 2500 inmates in seg in the state. The plaintiffs' complaint acknowledged that any inmate who makes a report of misconduct and is placed on non-disciplinary detention status can be held in that status indefinitely, and the hold order need will be reviewed - unilaterally by a prison official with no input from the inmate - only every 90 days.

A prisoner, one who hasn't misbehaved and is a good penal citizen through her report of problems in a facility, gets a potential life sentence in solitary, a place that the United Nations says is tantamount to torture after 15 days. This non-disciplinary inmate lives in the same conditions as an inmate who has attacked a guard or smuggled drugs into the facility.

As a result, it behooves an inmate not to report dangerous conditions or abuse in her facility. She's better off just acting out; she'll get out of solitary sooner, even in prisons where the length of stay in solitary is objectively unreasonable.

Punishing reports of misconduct has become explicit here in Connecticut. This past May, after the number of press reports uncovered that sexual assaults were on the rise in the state's prisons, lieutenants and guards actually required each inmate at York Correctional Institution to sign an acknowledgement that she knew that, if she reported any sexual assault, she would be placed on administrative detention status in solitary confinement.

The acknowledgement included language that required the prisoner to concede that this placement in solitary confinement was not retribution or punishment for the report. One inmate, a former attorney, refused to sign and told the guard holding a pen out for her: "Punishment is built into your reporting rules. I'm not signing."

They threatened her with placement in solitary confinement for not signing but she prevailed, telling the administration: "I won't agree to allow you to put me in seg[regation] for telling you what's happening in this place." They backed off.

Every prison has snitches, inmates who report others misconduct either to cover up their own dirty deeds or to cause chaos.

But every facility also has good inmates, even innocent inmates, who report misconduct because it makes the prison less safe and less secure. The majority of prisoners who make up the non-disciplinary population of solitary confinement are the good citizens who are trying to make their world - a tiny, razor-wire decorated world - a safer place. If we want them to continue this good citizenship when they leave custody, then they are the last people whom we should subject to solitary confinement conditions that are proven to be so damaging.