Hell in the Hole

Bernard Kerik, who headed New York City’s jails and then the Police Department before a felony conviction landed him in federal prison for four years, is reinventing himself as a prison reformer. In his new book, “From Jailer to Jailed,” Kerik describes the brutality of solitary confinement. Serious reformers are also zeroing in on the irreversible harm done to prisoners — especially teenagers — thrown in the hole for long periods. Across the U.S., there are 80,000 prisoners in solitary on any given day.


Kerik, who is bitter about his time behind bars, says that “every prosecutor, judge, correction officer, jail and prison official should have to spend seventy-two hours in the hole to see what it’s like.” Not necessary. Solitary’s harmful effects are undisputed. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy testified to Congress on March 23 that solitary “literally drives men mad.”

Solitary means being kept in a cell the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day with meals delivered through a slot in the door. The effects are gruesome. Some inmates bite off their own fingers, one digit at a time, castrate themselves or commit suicide. Those who make it out of the hole can be scarred for life, unable to make eye contact or talk to other human beings. Solitary “is not designed for rehabilitation. Period. End of story,” says Robert Hood, former warden of a federal prison in Colorado.

Yet, the Texas prison system releases inmates directly from prolonged solitary into the community. Surprise, these inmates are the first to commit new crimes.

Curbing solitary isn’t about going soft on violent criminals. It’s about stopping permanent physical harm to the most vulnerable prisoners and improving the odds that some prisoners will behave like civilized human beings once they’re released. “When we punish them in such a manner that they’re coming out more damaged than they went in,” says Heather Rice, a prison expert at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, “we’re doing a disservice to society.”

Last August, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara released a report on Riker’s Island jail full of horror stories about teenagers brutalized there. It documented that on any given day as many as one-quarter of 16- and 17-year-olds are in solitary, sometimes just for shouting insults or obscenities. They’re in the hole for as long as 200 days in several cases, and for more than 1,000 days in one case. After so long, a teenager’s brain is chopped meat.

Bharara recently got New York City corrections officials to agree to stop putting inmates under 18 in solitary and to shorten time in the hole for adults. New York State, facing a lawsuit from the New York Civil Liberties Union, also agreed to stop putting adolescents and pregnant inmates into solitary. But union resistance may thwart these deals.

Norman Seabrook, president of the powerful Correction Officers Benevolent Association, has made it clear he’s opposed. Seabrook fumes that “we didn’t sign up to be mental health instructors, we didn’t sign up to be clinicians, we didn’t sign up to be none of those things.” Seabrook considers the city’s Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who took over a year ago, a softie and insists that “we don’t need a reformer; we need law and order.”

That unenlightened view ignores that jails became warehouses for the mentally ill once states closed psychiatric facilities in the 1960s.

Thirty-eight percent of inmates in New York’s jails are mentally ill, a figure similar to what’s found in other states. Instead of flatly refusing to adjust to that reality, unions need to get behind reform and support training correctional officers to cope with mentally ill prisoners. Oregon, for example, is already providing such training.

For centuries, we’ve struggled with why we imprison. To punish evildoers and keep them locked away, of course. But we also harbor hope that some prisoners will be rehabilitated. Cultural icons such as Dorothea Dix, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Johnny Cash have tried to jog our consciences about solitary.

Sometimes it’s needed to control vicious prisoners, but its overuse undermines any hope of rehabilitation. You might as well throw away the key.

Betsy McCaughey is a former Lt. Governor of New York State and the chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.

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