An illustration of Auburn Prison from Harper’s Weekly, December 18, 1858.
Johnny Tremont’s trip to solitary confinement started with having too many postage stamps. Until then, he’d been a model prisoner. When Tremont (whose name in this article has been changed at his request) entered the New York prison system at age 20, he was a well-spoken kid from an upstate college town who excelled at pretty much anything he put his mind to. In high school, he’d put his mind to dealing cocaine. Once he was sent to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Finger Lakes region, he put his mind to keeping his nose clean and getting what he could out of his fifteen-year sentence. He enrolled in every program available, quickly earned his GED and then started tutoring other prisoners working toward theirs.
To relieve the monotony, Tremont sometimes bet on sports with other inmates, using the common prison currency of postage stamps. “I was on my way to pay the guy who won a pool between a few friends,” he recalls, when he was caught with 200 stamps, well over the allowable number. This earned him a month in “keeplock”—round-the-clock confinement to his own cell. His cellmate was also on keeplock, and when Tremont could no longer stand the crowding and idleness, he talked a guard into letting him out to go to his prison job. Caught playing basketball instead, he was sent to twenty-eight days in “the Box.”
“The Box” is how New York prisoners refer to solitary confinement. Less colloquially, it’s the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), for Special Housing Unit, the state’s euphemism for its isolation cells. Officially, New York places prisoners in “disciplinary” or “administrative” segregation, but regardless of the label, the conditions are the same as in prisons across the country: twenty-three hours a day in a cell the size of the average suburban bathroom.
A common misconception is that solitary confinement is a punishment of last resort, reserved for inmates who present a threat of violence or escape. The reality—especially in New York, which has the highest rate of “disciplinary segregation” in the country—is that it’s very much a punishment of first resort, doled out for minor rule violations as well as major offenses. In New York, the most common reason for a stint in solitary is creating a “disturbance” or “demonstration.” This can mean anything from mouthing off to guards to fomenting a riot, and it often involves inmates with psychoses or other psychiatric problems. Second is “dirty urine”—testing positive for drugs of any kind. In a prison system where 85 percent of inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, drug use alone can get you up to ninety days in solitary, and a year if it happens multiple times. Other infractions include refusing to obey orders, “interfering with employees,” being “out of place” and possession of contraband—not only a shiv but a joint, a cellphone or too many postage stamps.
With some 80,000 prisoners in solitary, the United States leads the world in isolating its citizens as well as incarcerating them. Though growing local and national movements are fighting solitary confinement as costly, dangerous and fundamentally inhumane—and though states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce its use—in this bluest of states, the prison system is in effect rigged to keep its plentiful isolation cells filled, and thousands of inmates spend weeks, months, years, even decades in solitary. On any given day, there are about 4,500 men, women and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York State prisons. (In New York City’s jails, run under a separate system, there are close to 1,000 more.)