NEWS: Solitary Confinement Is Just Criminal

By Karen Murtagh. Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union.

elmiraThe Times  Union recently published an opinion piece by the president of the prison  guards’ union responding to a published profile of Jeffrey  Rockefeller. Due to a near lifetime of serious mental illness, Rockefeller  landed in prison and spent half of his 40-month incarceration in solitary  confinement — where he ultimately tried to commit suicide.

Contrary to the assertion that solitary confinement (aka “special housing  units”) is used to isolate inmates who are a danger to others and themselves,  less than 16 percent of the 4,500 people in solitary in 2012 were there for  violent behavior.

Brian  Fischer, the recently retired corrections commissioner, has admitted that  “solitary confinement is overused.” The significant reduction or near  elimination of the use of solitary by Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine,  Ohio and Washington, without any impact on prison safety, belies the statement  that “SHUs are the only mechanism for removing dangerous inmates from the  general population.”

The disconnect here is the failure to differentiate between isolation and  separation. Certain individuals need short-term isolation for their own safety  or the safety of others, but the rationale for such isolation is to prevent  imminent harm, not to impose months, years, or decades of retribution and  mental deterioration.

At least one study has shown that the recidivism rate for those who have been  subjected to solitary confinement is 23 percent higher than those who have not.  More than 95 percent of incarcerated New Yorkers are ultimately released to our  communities. We are all safer when formerly incarcerated individuals lead  productive lives. Spending time in solitary confinement lessens the likelihood  that an individual will be psychologically prepared to do this.

Karen  L. Murtagh is executive director of Prisoners’ Legal  Services of New York.


  1. Solitary confinement is too inhumane for words. It’s about time we as citizens become aware of this torture. Despite whatever atrocities an inmate has committed, we cannot treat them with more cruelty than a human being can or should endure.


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