End solitary confinement at Rikers Island

From the May-June 2016 issue of News & Letters

New York—Having spent time at Rikers Island in solitary confinement, I cannot forget that it is a universal problem. Although some nations have abolished it, Amnesty International notes that the U.S. uses solitary confinement to an extent unequalled in any other democratic country. Over 80,000 people on any one day are held in isolation, with 25,000 held long-term in super-maximum security prisons. That’s 22-24 hours a day confined to a cell for months, years or decades in conditions of severe social and physical isolation.

Individuals in solitary confinement are deprived of all but the most minimal human contact, both within the prison and with those outside it. This practice violates international laws and standards, including the rights enshrined in the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

At Rikers Island the solitary cell is totally isolated from other prisoners and even guards. The prisoner in solitary is at the complete mercy of the guards to turn on and off the cell light, to decide when to escort the prisoner to the showers, when or if to bring food and medication. On more than one occasion I was deprived of medication by the official indifference of the guards and medical personnel at Rikers.

You are not provided with newspapers or reading material, there is no sunlight in the cell, the only window is small and high, virtually impossible to see out of. The cell is small, and there is no communication from one to another.

How does one end up in solitary? Well, in my case, I was 60 years old, not massive or husky, relatively short and not in my physical prime. In short, I was not a danger to other prisoners or staff. In return, other prisoners posed no danger to me. An arbitrary decision by a judge when I was sentenced landed me in solitary. I had no way to appeal the decision. My only “offense” was that I am a Transgender woman, a “crime” in the eyes of the DOC apparently.

What does solitary do? When you are cut off from all human contact, you begin to turn within. You begin to go through a process called “mental decompensation.” You gradually lose your faculties to think and reason. You sleep 18-20 hours a day, only waking for food and meds. Your intellectual talents wither. And gradually you go mad. The percentage of prisoners in isolation who are mentally ill is astronomical. It takes a truly strong woman or man not to break. And that is what the system is designed to do: to break prisoners. But it is failing.

In California in the last five years, thousands of prisoners have waged massive hunger strikes demanding the abolition of solitary confinement. (See “California prisoners battle barbaric U.S. ‘justice’ system,” Nov.-Dec. 2015 N&L.) They have managed to put into place a permanent end of hostilities between different groups, forging unity out of common oppression.

They have built a strong base of support among family members and others. The prisoners in the most notorious of these places, Pelican Bay, have led the way in fighting to end segregation once and for all.

While any positive changes to the rules governing solitary confinement at Rikers are welcomed, they will not be enough. Malcolm X asked: Does the slave thank the master for pulling the knife in his back halfway out? No, we want it all the way out. At Rikers and every prison, that means the complete and total abolition of solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment. I hope we can bring an end to the Guantanamo in New York City that we call Rikers Island.

—Natalia 

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