On the first chilly morning in September, several dozen demonstrators gathered in front of a limestone skyscraper on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan. Some wore orange jumpsuits, and two of them held a broad banner with the hand-painted words, “Solitary Is Torture.”
The subject of the protest was the abuse of prisoners—not at Guantánamo, Bagram or some distant black site, but on Rikers Island, less than ten miles away. The protesters, members of a new advocacy group called the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), argue that conditions there—particularly solitary confinement—constitute torture in their own backyard. The target of the protest was the New York City Board of Correction, which oversees conditions for the 13,000-odd men, women, and children who inhabit New York City’s jails on a given day, and whose monthly meeting was taking place inside.
According to the City’s own figures, the number of isolation cells at Rikers has risen to nearly 1,000 and is still growing. The JAC also points to the existence of special solitary confinement units on Rikers Island, designed to hold teenagers and people with mental illness.
“This type of treatment is cruel and inhumane to any human being, especially growing adolescents,” said Lisa Ortega, mother of a 18-year-old with psychiatric disabilities who was placed in twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement on Rikers for weeks at a time, amounting to several months, when he was 16. “The damage done is irreversible.”
Until recently, it seemed like New York’s penchant for solitary confinement might be irreversible too. But a growing number of activists are working to combat the overuse of solitary in both the city’s jails and the state’s prisons. (New York City and New York State isolate their prisoners at the rate of about 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively—both rates more than double the national average.) In addition to JAC, which focuses on city jails, an informal coalition of prisoners’ rights groups and civil liberties organizations has formed to fight for change at the state level. Critical to both efforts are that they involve directly affected individuals—survivors of solitary and their families. And both draw on the work of an older organization, Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, which has led a ten-year campaign to limit the use of solitary confinement on people with mental illness.