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Another Voice: Solitary confinement makes us all less human

By Nicole Capozziello

Imagine this: A fluorescent light buzzes above you, perpetually on. A 6-by-9-foot space with four cement walls to stare at and little else. The echo of metal doors latching. The sounds of other people howling, screaming.

Now imagine this is your life for 23 hours a day, for days, weeks, years on end. Not seeing the sun. Not seeing your face in a mirror. Not exchanging a smile with another person. Not having a conversation.

While criminal justice reform is a hot topic these days, the practice of solitary confinement – confining a human being to a space smaller than a parking spot for between 22 and 24 hours a day – remains in the shadows, a horror too dark for the true crime shows we watch in our living rooms. Yet it is a practice used in every state, with 80,000 Americans in solitary right now.

Here in New York, this nightmare is a reality for thousands of men, women and children in our prisons and jails every day. Solitary confinement, denounced by the United Nations if used for more than 15 days, is not an effective punishment – it is torture.

Even people without previous mental health issues are broken down by the solitude. The unnaturalness of it. The pain.

And long after people serve their sentence, the effects of solitary linger – in the loss of their ability to form bonds with others, regulate their emotions, be in open spaces. These people, unnecessarily damaged, are released, to families, communities and our society.

I believe, as a future social worker, an activist and a human being, that solitary dehumanizes everyone involved: the prisoners subjected to it, the corrections officers who must enforce it, and the citizens and policymakers who permit it.

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term, or HALT, solitary confinement bill, currently working its way through the New York State Legislature, presents a path forward. The heart of this bill is to replace this counterproductive torture with programming and mental health support.

It will also limit time in solitary to 15 consecutive days, with no more than 20 days within a 60-day period. Encourage your friends, family and politicians to support this important bill and make New York a leader in reform.

I am fortunate to have never spent a day, much less a decade, in solitary. Each day, I breathe fresh air, look out the window and walk a distance of more than 10 feet, simple acts being denied to thousands of fellow human beings.

It is time to ask ourselves, for our own humanity and for those we subject to this torture, what kind of society are we? And how do we want to be?

Nicole Capozziello is a doctoral student at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work and an organizer with the WNY chapter of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

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