How Minor Infractions Land New York’s Mentally Ill Inmates In Solitary Confinement


child-in-prisonAmir Hall initially went to prison for violating parole, after robbing $87 from a Verizon store, unarmed. He was given a sentence of 16 months to four years for a fight with his sister’s friend that constituted a parole violation, and he never again saw life on the outside.

Hall had previously been at a psychiatric institute for trying to suffocate himself, but mental health staff at Mid-State prison did not deem him as having a “serious” mentally illness. As a consequence, he was eligible for solitary confinement, a treatment that is rampant in New York prisons, in which inmates spend most of their hours in an isolated, often windowless cell, with little or no human contact. And while there, he took his own life.

Suicides are alarmingly common in solitary confinement, in spite of warnings that the treatment takes an onerous psychological toll, particularly on the mentally ill. In New York, after a lawsuit challenged widespread confinement of the mentally ill, a law was passed in 2011 that imposed severe limits on placing those with “serious” mental illness in solitary confinement. According to a report by ProPublica and WNYC, the number of inmates categorized as having “serious” mental illness took a sudden dip, making individuals like Hall eligible. “A larger portion of inmates flagged for mental issues are now being given more modest diagnoses, such as adjustment disorders or minor mood disorders,” according to the report.

Recently, 30,000 California inmates went on strike to protest that state’s system of solitary confinement, which holds inmates for indefinite periods that span upwards of 40 years, in isolated cells for 24 hours a day. But studies have found that confinement takes an immense psychological toll after just a few weeks, and several courts, along with the Department of Justice, have deemed the practice cruel and unusual as applied to the mentally ill. Solitary confinement of anybody is considered torture and cruel and inhuman treatment by human rights organizations. Many inmates report that they develop angry, violent tendencies during confinement, which can later manifest themselves once they are released — increasing public safety risks.

In New York, the focus of ProPublica’s investigation, confinement involves some procedural protections for mental health, including as much as four hours a day outside the cell, and regular mental health assessment. But these assessments don’t seem to have flagged the deterioration of Hall and others who took their own lives in those cells. And New York has been called one of the worst states on solitary confinement, for imposing the sentence after “infractions as minor as having too many postage stamps or a messy cell.” According to a report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, five out of six sentences to solitary are for “nonviolent misbehavior.” Nationwide, investigations have found that juveniles and the mentally ill are often placed in solitary confinement, purportedly for their own protection, or as a mental health treatment.

Recognizing that the practice remains common in the United States even for juveniles and the mentally ill, the federal agency tasked with overseeing prisons agreed for the first time in February to undertake a close examination of the practice.