After being accused of cursing at a corrections officer, Jessica Concepcion, seven months pregnant, spent the Christmas of 2006 in solitary confinement at Bedford Hills, New York’s maximum-security prison for women. Confined to her a cell for 23 consecutive hours, she had no opportunity for any human interaction, let alone a chance to wish her family a merry Christmas. “It was torture,” she told me. “All you have is those walls to talk to. You don’t have nothing else but those walls.”
In prisons across the US, it’s estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 people are held in isolation at any given moment. The exact number is hard to pin down because solitary goes by various names. In New York, there’s the SHU (Special Housing Unit), which is a set of dedicated cellblocks that holds more than 2,700 people—or about 5 percent of the state’s 51,000 prisoners. Then there’s “keeplock,” in which people are confined to their own cells. Official data has not been released, but the Correctional Association of New York, a prison monitoring organization, estimates that another 1,000 people are in keeplock, bringing the percentage of New York state prisoners in isolation to 7.4 percent. Whether in SHU or keeplock, prisoners are allowed out of their cells for just one hour each day—to shower or exercise alone in an outdoor cage. Their only human contact is when officers handcuff them before removing them from their cells.
On Friday, December 22, Concepcion and her wife Xena Grandichelli, who has also spent time in solitary, joined over a dozen advocates outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown office to sing Christmas carols. But they weren’t simply spreading holiday cheer; they were urging him to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit time in isolation to 15 consecutive days and create alternatives for those who need longer periods of separation.
The protesters held aloft a 24-by-36 inch holiday card that invited the governor to spend 24 hours in solitary. The invitation may seem outrageous, but it’s not unprecedented. In January 2014, shortly after being appointed director of Colorado’s prison system, Rick Raemisch spent 20 hours in a 7-by-13-foot isolation cell in a maximum-security prison: “When I finally left my cell at 3 p.m., I felt even more urgency for reform,” he wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.
In September 2017, Raemisch ended the practice of long-term solitary confinement in Colorado’s prisons. Prisoners who commit serious rule violations, such as assault, spend a maximum of 15 days in isolation; if necessary, they are assigned therapy or anger management classes afterward. Six years earlier, 1,500 people—nearly 7 percent of the state’s prison population—were in solitary on any given day. By mid-October 2017, less than 60 days after the policy change, Raemisch noted that only 18 people were held in segregation.
Not only is getting rid of solitary humane, there’s no evidence that it prevents violence. In 2002, Mississippi’s Death Row prisoners launched a hunger strike. This led to an ACLU lawsuit around inhumane conditions, which led to the 2010 closing of Parchman Penitentiary’s notorious Unit 32 and a decrease in the use of isolation. By 2012, 316 people were in solitary, a 75 percent drop from five years earlier. During that same period, prison violence also declined. In 2016, only 185 people out of Mississippi’s 18,866 prisoners, or just 1 percent, were in solitary.
Still New York, like many other states, does not limit the time that inmates can spend in segregation. Prisoners can be placed in isolation for 50 days for infractions as minor as throwing spitballs or, in one case, given more than 37 years for making 38 posts on Facebook. Many are sent to solitary for drug use. Johnny Perez, now director of the US Prisons Programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, spent a year in solitary after testing positive for marijuana. “What happens in New York happens [in prisons] around the country,” Perez told me. “Solitary is not used as a measure of last resort. It’s not used only for violence or violent acts.”
Perez also points out that New York prisons continue to place people with mental illness in isolation despite the SHU Exclusion Law. Passed in 2008, the law diverts people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression to residential mental-health units. But Perez says those with less severe diagnoses are still being placed in solitary, which often exacerbates their existing mental health conditions. He also says that some people in New York spend years, if not decades, in isolation.
Two of the carolers delivered the card to Elias Garcia, who identified himself as an assistant to the governor and who promised to ensure that Cuomo received it. Standing outside the governor’s office, Concepcion, Grandichelli, and the rest of the carolers continued to sing, belting out to the tune of Jingle Bells: “Single cells, double cells, hear us when we say/S-H-U in any form is torture every day.”