Solitary Confinement


Adopted by the Council
September, 2012

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  Hebrews 13:3

“Lord, when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  And the King will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Matthew 25: 39-40

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone . . .” Genesis 2:18

We believe that God created human beings with an inherent dignity to be respected at all times and in all places.  We believe that the image of God, the human worth of every person, is nurtured, fulfilled and held accountable only in relationship, in human community.  Therefore, we believe that prolonged isolation imposed on any person is inhumane, torturous, degrading to the human spirit, and contrary to the will of God.

A widely recognized definition of torture is found in the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1984 and ratified by the United States in 1994:  Torture is defined as any act by which,
. . . severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act  he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity
Prisoners held in solitary confinement are often detained in a small cage-like cell for 23 hours per day with minimal reading materials, access to media, rehabilitative programs or other human contact.  Some prisoners are kept in these conditions for months, years or decades.  Male and female detainees in “disciplinary segregation” range in age from upper teens to 60 years or older.  Numerous scientific clinical studies document the psychological and physiological suffering caused by such prolonged isolation: symptoms akin to delirium including hallucinations, perceptual distortions, heart palpitations, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation.

An official of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project defined solitary confinement as “no touch torture.”   A report in the Poughkeepsie Journal on prison suicides in New York State between 2007 and 2010 found that inmates in solitary confinement committed suicide at a rate five times higher per capita than the general prison population.  Experts observe that solitary confinement often induces mental illness in stable inmates and worsens it in the many confined with mental illness.

The United States per capita incarceration rate is the highest in the world, as is our per capita rate of prisoners held in solitary confinement.  Currently about 4500 inmates are held in “administrative” or “disciplinary segregation” in New York State prisons and another 1000 in New York City correctional facilities.   New York State has one of the highest rates of “disciplinary segregation” in the country. 

There is hope for change.  In 2008, New York became the first state to enact legislation to modify prison conditions for mentally ill inmates by passing the SHU Exclusion Law, which requires that the Department of Corrections remove persons with serious mental illness from solitary confinement whenever possible and those who remain must be treated with a heightened standard of care.

Solitary confinement can be justified as a last resort for a brief time in extreme instances of threat or violence.  It can provide safety for prison inmates, staff, and the offending inmate briefly, while treatment and long-term humane solutions are sought.  However, experienced observers of the State prison system, such as the Correctional Association of New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union, report that disciplinary segregation is often used as a first resort punishment for minor offenses and often imposed arbitrarily, repeatedly, and without due process.

Wide spread use of solitary confinement in New York State and elsewhere has not resulted in a reduction of prison violence or inmate recidivism.   Prisoners released from disciplinary segregation units directly to their communities at the end of their prison sentence are more likely to recommit crimes.  The states of Colorado, Maine and Mississippi recently enacted reforms that greatly reduced the use of solitary confinement in their prisons.  Results were positive for prison inmates, staff and the public.  Levels of hostility, anger and violence declined, safety increased, and public expenditures were reduced.   Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, explained:  “Over time, the more data we’re pulling is showing that what we’re doing now [through greatly reducing the use of solitary confinement] is safer than what we were doing before.”

The New York State Council of Churches hereby resolves:

  1. To oppose the use of prolonged or arbitrary solitary confinement in the correctional facilities of New York State and New York City and to urge humane treatment and due process for all inmates by following the example of Maine, Colorado and Mississippi in reducing solitary confinement and offering to all inmates programs and services that contribute to their rehabilitation and successful transition back into society.
  2. To express to the New York State Legislature commendation for passage of the Shu Exclusion Law barring severely mentally ill prison inmates from disciplinary segregation and to urge the Governor and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to monitor the Law’s implementation and to assure full compliance.
  3. To reaffirm our membership in the interfaith National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) and to participate in their efforts to reduce the use of prolonged solitary confinement in New York State and New York City correctional facilities.
  4. To urge our member denominations, local and area Councils of Churches, regional judicatories and congregations to join in this appeal for human dignity in New York prisons and to oppose prisoners being kept in any form of solitary confinement for more than fifteen days.

Sources and resources:

  • Resolution on Prolonged Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons, The 220th General Assembly (2012) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
  • Testimony of Linda Gustitus, President, and Rev. Richard Killmer, Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights Hearing on Reassessing Solitary Confinement, June 19, 2012
  • “New York’s Black Sites,” by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, The Nation., July 11, 2012
  • NRCAT teleconference interview with Jack Beck, Esq., of the Correctional Association of New York and Scarlet Kim of the New York Civil Liberties Union, August 22, 2012