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The Personal Cost Of Solitary Confinement

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

At any given time in the U.S., more than 50,000 people are in solitary confinement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) The human body is not meant to live in a parking space; the human body is meant to move.

SHAPIRO: These are artists from the project Silenced reading excerpts from letters written by inmates in isolation describing what solitary is like.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) It's the lack of sound that will kill you - or too much sound, too much screaming.

SHAPIRO: Research shows that isolation can lead to severe psychological issues and higher risk of suicide.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Reading) I can tell you of paranoia, hallucination, schizophrenia, depression, even paralyzing anxiety.

SHAPIRO: Activists are lobbying the U.S. to do away with the practice, and New York is one place moving in that direction. The city's Board of Correction recently voted to end solitary, but activists say the new measure still falls short. We're joined now by Candie Hailey, an activist pushing for solitary confinement to be abolished and also a former inmate at New York's Rikers jail, and Scott Paltrowitz - he's an organizer with HALT Solitary. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us.

CANDIE HAILEY: Thank you.

SCOTT PALTROWITZ: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Scott, I'd like to start with you. As I just mentioned, New York made headlines last week on changes to its solitary confinement procedures. Can you help us understand what's new here?

PALTROWITZ: The problem with the changes that were made is that there isn't much new. They're claiming to end solitary confinement, but they're going to keep locking people alone in a cell 23 hours a day indefinitely. This is solitary confinement by any rational definition, and it's really absurd and disingenuous for the city to claim that it's not solitary confinement.

SHAPIRO: Candie, you were in solitary confinement at Rikers, New York City's main jail, for more than three years. And then the charges against you were dropped, and you were set free. Can you tell us what solitary was like for you?

HAILEY: Well, I feel like I'm free, but - like, physically, I'm free, but mentally, I still have the thoughts of solitary confinement - those thoughts don't go away. And if you asked me to describe my time in there, I'd just tell them that it's absolute torture. There's never a good day. There's never a happy day, nothing positive about it. It's just negative - abuse, torture, neglect. And I just think - no animal deserves to be treated like that. They have animals at zoos that get treated better than what we get treated in there.

SHAPIRO: And when you say those feelings are still with you, what are those feelings? How do they manifest now, you know, even more than five years after your release?

HAILEY: It's like there's no cure for a nightmare or a daymare (ph). Like, when you go to sleep, the memories still pop up, and you wake up in a cold sweat, thinking you're still in solitary, and the whole time you're free. Like, talking to you, mentally I should feel like I'm free, but sometimes I think I'm going to wake up and still be in solitary; this is all a dream.

SHAPIRO: And during those three years, how much interaction did you have with other people?

HAILEY: None. I had no interactions. And the people that tried to interact with me, they would be yelled at and told to get away from my cell; don't pay me any attention. And they would have to listen to the officers. Even mental health, they tried to, you know, intervene and try to talk to me through the cell door sometimes, and the officers would tell them to get away from my cell.

SHAPIRO: Scott, how typical is Candie's experience for people who have been in long-term isolation?

PALTROWITZ: It's very typical. You know, the main harm of solitary confinement stems from the social isolation, and people are, you know, deprived of meaningful human contact and deprived of the ability to interact with people, which is part of the reason why the city's plan is so, you know, disturbing because people still will not be able to be even in the same space as another human being, let alone have meaningful human interaction with them. And we know the impacts of that. You know, as you started the program off with, people deteriorate physically and mentally. People engage in self-harm, self-mutilation. People bang their heads against the wall. People cut themselves. People swallow objects. People try to hang themselves. Tragically, people die from suicide but also from heart disease, from other impacts that solitary is known to cause.

SHAPIRO: I just want to clarify these changes with you because New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, says these new policies will end solitary confinement at Rikers Island. You say that is just false. Can you help us understand the disconnect?

PALTROWITZ: Definitely. So what they're claiming to do is that - you have a cell that somebody sleeps in. And what they've added to those cells - and there's an extension of the cell. It's smaller than the cell somebody sleeps in. But it's still a cell. It's still fully enclosed. And they're calling time in that separate, smaller cell that still you're alone in - they're calling that out-of-cell time. I think it's an intentional, misleading claim. It's a way to get around mandatory state law. And honestly, you know, there was a lot of public pressure on the city to end solitary, especially after tragedies like the death of Kalif Browder and the death of Layleen Polanco. And so the mayor, you know, because of this public pressure, had announced they're going to end solitary, but unfortunately, the Department of Correction and the Board of Correction and the mayor have clung to the status quo.

SHAPIRO: Candie, what do you make of this new policy? Is it at least a step in the right direction?

HAILEY: No, absolutely not. The only thing they're doing different, from what I can see, is changing the name. It's just moving one - a person from one solitary confinement situation to another solitary confinement situation. So they might as well just stay where they were at.

SHAPIRO: Scott, tell us how this fits into the national picture. Do you think, around the U.S., solitary confinement is likely to continue, or is the criminal justice system moving away from the practice?

PALTROWITZ: I think there is growing momentum all across this country to move away from solitary confinement. We know the devastating harms of solitary, and we also know that solitary does nothing for the safety of the people incarcerated, for staff or outside communities. What actually works to improve safety, reduce violence is intensive engagement and programming. And there's examples all over the country where you use intensive programming and opportunities to engage with human beings, and violence rates and safety improve dramatically. Violence rates drop dramatically. And so I think there's growing momentum across the country to end this practice.

Just last week, there was a new blueprint to end solitary by the federal government that was put out by a federal anti-solitary task force that gives the details for how the federal government, Congress and the Executive can end solitary confinement in a real and meaningful way. President Biden and Vice President Harris both promised to end solitary on the campaign trail, and so this blueprint provides them a way to end it federally to incentivize states and localities to end it. And there's been, you know, really great victories in different parts of the country where solitary is being limited or ended. And even here in New York state, earlier this year, there was a really important law called the Halt Solitary Confinement Act that greatly restricted the use of solitary.

SHAPIRO: We've been speaking with Scott Paltrowitz with HALT Solitary and Candie Hailey, an anti-solitary confinement activist. Thank you both for speaking with us.

HAILEY: You're welcome.

PALTROWITZ: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: And after we recorded that conversation, the New York City Board of Corrections sent us a statement saying the new rule allows for a person to move from their cell into a small anteroom for 10 hours per day, where they can see and speak to at least one other person, use the phone and watch television. It also requires one hour of outdoor recreation and five hours daily of counseling and education, including an hour outside of the anteroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.