More generally, according to a 2015 Department of Justice report, about 20 percent of the adult prison population has spent some time in solitary, with 4.4 percent of the population in solitary on any given day in 2011-12. And in Florida, where I was incarcerated, approximately 10,000 people — more than 10 percent of its prison population — are in solitary confinement each day.
No matter the count, I witnessed too many people lose their minds while isolated. They’d involuntarily cross a line and simply never return to sanity. Perhaps they didn’t want to. Staying in their mind was the better, safer, more humane option.
After spending nearly two years in solitary confinement as a teenager at Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, Kalief Browder died by suicide at 22 years old. Others, like Carina Montes, 29, died by suicide during solitary — even while she was on suicide watch.
Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, something prohibited by the Eighth Amendment, yet prisons continue to practice it.
Reform efforts for solitary confinement are woefully few and far between. About 15 years ago, I testified for the plaintiffs in Osterback v. Moore, a class-action lawsuit that sought to reform Florida’s solitary confinement system. Although a settlement in the case resulted in modest improvements, including a reduction of inmates held in solitary and an increase in mental health treatment, more meaningful reform is needed.
And it’s possible: State legislatures can pass legislation reforming solitary confinement, as New York recently did. (The bill awaits a signature from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.) And mayors and governors can do their part to end the practice through executive action. Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, recently moved to end solitary confinement in New York City jails.
When it comes to children, elimination is the only moral option. And if ending solitary confinement for adults isn’t politically viable, public officials should at least limit the length of confinement to 15 days or fewer, in compliance with the U.N. standards.