Previously unreleased data from city health officials shows that inmates held in solitary confinement stay significantly longer in jail than others — raising questions about the cost and effectiveness of isolation, which the department has come to increasingly rely on as a form of punishment.
In June, the New York City Department of Correction announced it would curb the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill inmates. The move followed input from the Mayor’s Steering Committee of the Citywide Justice and Mental Health Initiative, which was tasked with examining why the numbers of mentally ill people in city jail continues to rise even as the jail population decreases.
But the unreleased data shows that all prisoners, not just the mentally ill, end up staying in jail longer than others on average if they undergo a stint in solitary, also known as punitive segregation.
The Department of Correction and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not respond to a request for comment.
The March 2012 memo, from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees health services in city corrections facilities, shows that while mentally ill inmates spend 112 days incarcerated on average, those held in punitive segregation for infractions of jail rules spend more than twice as much time behind bars before release — an average of 260 days. The data surveyed the lengths of stay of roughly 40,000 inmates in city jails in 2008.
What’s more, solitary confinement is associated with longer stays in jail even for those without diagnosed mental illness. Their average length of stay is 60 days in the general population but more than three times greater if they have been held in punitive segregation for at least part of their time in jail.
The city Department of Correction said that starting in July 2013 it will no longer place mentally ill detainees in punitive segregation if they commit an infraction. Instead, they will be given psychological treatment in a clinical setting at Rikers Island.
The mentally ill make up roughly 38 percent of the average population in the city’s jail system at any given time, and they typically spend on twice as long incarcerated on Rikers Island than the general population, even if they committed similar crimes and were given similar bail amounts.
The new reforms, which the correction department has described as “sweeping,” are intended to reduce the length of stay of the mentally ill in jail and address the “growing concern about the impact that punitive segregation may have on the mentally ill.”
“Placing an inmate in solitary often leads to a vicious cycle in which the inmate becomes more and more out of control, thus incurring either more time in solitary and/or additional criminal charges against him,” said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard psychologist who has studied the psychological effects of solitary confinement for decades, in an email.
The memo was sent to Department of Health officials as part of a study of mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island undertaken by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit association. Yet while the research sought to “improve public safety and treatment outcomes and reduce jail costs,” the eye-opening data on longer stays in jail for inmates in solitary confinement was not included in the council’s published report.
Indeed, the words “solitary confinement” and “punitive segregation” were not mentioned in the final report, which was issued in December 2012 in coordination with the Mayor’s Office, Department of Health and Department of Correction. Instead, a footnote in the report referencing the memo simply noted that “those with clinic visits for injury or involvement in jail incidents had significantly longer periods of incarceration than those without clinic visits.”
According to the Council on State Governments, the data in the memo was not available to the organization’s staff during their period of research. “Given the data available at the time, the steering committee settled on those issues that were addressed in our report, though we did acknowledge some of the other issues worthy of further inspection,” said Robert Coombs, director of communications for the council’s Justice Center, in an email.
“The issue of punitive segregation is interesting, but like a number of other factors (e.g. homelessness) was not part of the limited purview of the final report both because the necessary analyses had not been completed and because the data was not directly related to the policy issues we were exploring.”
Prisoner rights groups have long argued that punitive segregation harms inmates and is in fact capable of creating mental illness. Despite public campaigns to halt the expansion of punitive segregation in New York City, the corrections department under Commissioner Dora Schriro has expanded the number of units by 44 percent and now has holds a larger share of inmates in isolation than almost any other jail system in the nation.
The publication of the Council of State Governments’ study was repeatedly delayed in 2012, leading some in the advocacy community to speculate that its findings were deemed too controversial for public release during the review process.
“I don’t know what’s going on behind all these missed deadlines,” said John Boston of Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project before the study was published. “The fact that we are not hearing from these folks and it was expected that we would, is a bad sign. One thing that it can mean is that they are telling people something that they don’t want to hear and so they aren’t being allowed to say it.”