The euphemism for it is "special housing units," but inmates in New York State prisons call it "the box." A new report says the average sentence to solitary confinement is five months, though it sometimes lasts for years. The New York Civil Liberties Union makes a persuasive argument that it's time for the state to examine the costs and consequences of excessive use of extreme isolation as a disciplinary tool.
Why should we on the outside care how things go for inmates? Because 25,000 of them leave our prisons every year and return to our streets. We should worry about whether prison has equipped them to provide for themselves, or whether they will fall right back into crime and hurt the rest of us.
Hundreds of inmates a year go directly from solitary to the streets. The state says it gives even those inmates transitional preparation before release, but it's still unnerving to think of someone straight from the box, with its potential psychological aftereffects, and in a really sour mood walking among us.
Obviously, solitary may be the only solution for inmates who act out violently against other inmates or correction officers. But the NYCLU argues that only 16 percent of the sentences to solitary involve violent acts or weapons -- and infractions as tiny as having too many postage stamps in a cell can land an inmate in the box.
The state has an obligation to make sure that the seriously mentally ill don't get thrown into the box unless it's absolutely necessary. In 2008, the State Legislature passed a law to that effect and set up a special advocacy commission for mentally ill inmates. That's helpful. So is the reaction to the NYCLU report by Brian Fischer, the state prisons commissioner, who said his department began "an intense review" of its policies on solitary in early September.
Both the NYCLU and the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, express concern. The department should publish the results of its review and cut the use of solitary as far as possible. If Mississippi, citing the box's ineffectiveness as well as cost concerns, can move 85 percent of inmates out of solitary, what can New York do?