How Solitary Confinement Destroys Any Hope of Sobriety

By Keri Blakinger and Katelyn Morton 06/13/16

Solitary confinement is a torture device. In New York, an inmate can be sent to solitary for a nonviolent rules infraction like too many stamps or being in the wrong place.

How Solitary Confinement Destroys Any Hope of Sobriety
For Maria, solitary confinement “made me want to use more.”

“I went from not caring to not giving a fuck,” Maria said. 

The Queens native is currently serving time in one of New York state’s female prisons. Though she was already a drug user before she got locked up, Maria says that her addiction has only gotten worse since she’s been behind bars, where she started experimenting with more substances than the pot, alcohol and occasional pills she was doing on the outside. 

Drugs felt like “a necessity” in the harsh world of prison, but eventually that “necessity” landed Maria in solitary confinement. That’s when, she says, she stopped “giving a fuck.” 

Though the specifics vary from one prison system to the next, typically solitary confinement means being alone in a 6x9 or 8x10 cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. Sometimes, there’s an opportunity for outside recreation—but in some facilities, that just means going out into a tiny “dog cage,” alone and shackled. Meals and meds are pushed in through a slot in the door. 

There are different types of isolated confinement, though they go by different names in different prison systems. There’s psychiatric and medical isolation, punitive isolation, protective custody, and administrative isolation for the “safety and security” of the facility. 

Solitary confinement is a routinely used weapon in the prison guard’s arsenal. In New York—as in many other states—solitary sentences can be doled out for trivial, nonviolent rules violations. If you’re not familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system, you might assume that solitary is for the worst of the worst. But you would be wrong. 

“People can end up in solitary for completely trivial reasons such as helping someone with their legal work,” said Johnny Perez, an anti-solitary activist and Urban Justice Center reentry advocate who served more than a decade behind bars in New York state. “People can also be sent to the box for refusing a direct order or refusing to take medication.”

In New York—where both Maria and Johnny were locked up—five out of six times when an inmate is sent to solitary, it’s for a nonviolent rules infraction. That’s things like having too many stamps, being in the wrong place, or talking back to a guard. That also includes things like using drugs behind bars. 

Of course, it only takes a very rudimentary understanding of addiction to suspect that this is not an effective way to combat drug use. At a time when the outside world is beginning to embrace harm reduction approaches, the prison system lags far behind, preferring to heap punishment upon punishment. It wasn’t always that way, though.

Over time, there’s been a gradual shift in the way solitary confinement is used in prison. It was used widely in the early days of the United States, and it continued to be popular once the prison system started growing in the early 1800s. Isolation was, at that point, the basic model of incarceration, as Dr. Craig Haney told PBS in 2014.

When Alexis de Tocqueville took a tour through the 19th century American prison system, he was horrified. “It devours and kills and does nothing to reform them,” he said. Once that realization caught on, solitary confinement began to fall out of favor. Instead, the prison system focused on reforming its charges. 

That all changed again in the 1970s with the start of the Drug War and the tough-on-crime era of criminal justice policy. “We embraced and set a prison-for-punishment rationale,” Haney said. “Among other things, what that meant is that prison systems had fewer and fewer incentives to offer prisoners. There were fewer programs; there were fewer ways of shaping prisoner behavior by offering them positive things to do.

“And so, having been denied the opportunity to use carrots, they began to use sticks. They began to punish prisoners in order to control them, and one of the tried-and-true, old-time ways of punishing prisoners is to put them in the hole.”

Solitary confinement came back in vogue and today, when, by various estimates over the past decade, there are more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement.

In recent years, there have been some small improvements.

Passed in 2009, New York’s SHU Exclusion Law dictates that prisoners with “serious mental illness” be placed in a specialized treatment unit instead of regular solitary confinement.

As it turns out, in the Empire State, the term “serious mental illness” has come to have a very narrow definition—one that most certainly does not include substance use disorders. While the law seems to indicate that legislators have come to the realization that mental health problems are not made better through long-term isolation, that same consideration hasn’t been applied to addiction. 

“Addiction is basically defined as compulsive behavior despite negative consequences,” neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz explained to Democracy Now! earlier this year. “And the irony here is that we use punishment, which is just another word for negative consequences, to try to stop addiction. And if that actually worked, addiction wouldn’t exist.”

In fact, solitary doesn’t just fail to keep drug users sober after they get out—some don’t even stay sober while they’re in isolation. 

“There’s a lot of drugs in solitary, it’s crazy,” according to one survivor. DJ, 46, served two bids in New York state prisons and, during his most recent stay, he did three stints in solitary, all for drug-related activity. 

A former heroin user, DJ—who’s now out of prison and clean—continued using Suboxone recreationally throughout his state bid. When he was in solitary, he looked forward to using once a week. “It’s like a release of steam off the pressure pipe,” he said.

The logistics of getting drugs in solitary vary from unit to unit. In some cases, contraband comes in through the guards, while in others it’s hidden in books or smuggled in during visits. The methods employed for illicit drug use behind bars are as varied as the range of substances abused. But, according to DJ, the use of solitary in response to addiction and nonviolent infractions is just overkill.

“I think using solitary confinement for anything other than crazy violence is just ridiculous,” he said. “It fucks your head up.”

Over the past few years, the possibility that it might do just that has sparked rule changes and new restrictions about the use of solitary confinement in a number of states. For instance, the New York State Department of Corrections agreed to solitary confinement reform in the aftermath of a class action lawsuit

After the new rules were implemented in 2015, the state’s corrections officer union—New York State Correction Officers and Police Benevolent Association—released a video opposing reform. NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers argued that solitary is a necessary “deterrent for bad behavior.” Of course, one might argue that anyone who’s in state prison has clearly not been deterred by the possibility of punishment in the past. But whether or not it’s effective in deterring bad behavior, it’s certainly not effective in deterring the desire to use drugs. In some cases, it’s doing just the opposite. 

For Maria, solitary confinement “made me want to use more.” It was a dirty urine that landed Maria in solitary but, once there, the punishment did not— unsurprisingly—make her less inclined to use. In fact, she said, once she landed in solitary, she still had weed on her and managed to keep using. 

Today, she has no intention of staying clean. 

In response to a final interview question about whether she had anything to add, she said: “Smoke weed every day.”

Katelyn Morton is a freelance writer in recovery who is currently enjoying her freedom in upstate New York.

Keri Blakinger is a writer and prison-reform activist living near New York City. A writer for The New York Daily News, she has also been published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Quartz

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