STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A tourist attraction in Philadelphia says a lot about prisons in the United States. It's the Eastern State Penitentiary, built in the early 1800s. It was an innovative design, built in its time to be a prison where every inmate would serve in solitary confinement. The solitude was considered a path to reform despite concerns even then that solitary confinement could drive people insane. Today, much of the world has abandoned solitary confinement. In the United States, it remains normal, and it still figures into building plans for new prisons despite a backlash. Efforts to reform this practice are moving slowly. Natasha Haverty continues NPR's project on solitary confinement.
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NATASHA HAVERTY, BYLINE: This is level six of New Mexico State penitentiary in Santa Fe. It's a dense complex of prison cells stacked tight. As the gate opens to let me in, men's faces press against narrow glass windows. On this day, there are 235 inmates locked up here. They spend 23 hours a day in solitary.
NICKLAS TRUJEQUE: So a plug - plug it in right there.
HAVERTY: Security is so high that to talk to one of the inmates, a guy named Nicklas Trujeque, a guard has to pass my microphone through the food port of his cell door.
Perfect, can you hear me OK?
HAVERTY: Trujeque has a round, pock-marked face, dark eyebrows and a thin mustache. Tattoos climb his neck to his ears. He's 29. He's been in and out of jail since he was 11, often for violent crimes. I ask him to describe the tiny cell that makes up his world.
TRUJEQUE: I would say it's about as big as like a - you ever seen - like, I remember my grandpa had a shed in his backyard that he kept the tools in. I mean, this, to be honest, I wouldn't wish this on anybody. It's hard time.
HAVERTY: Trujeque's in solitary because he stabbed a parole officer and then assaulted a prison guard. He's been in this cell for the past year and two months and has another month to go. The one hour Trujeque gets outside, he spends in a cage the size of this cell. Trujeque tells me every hour he spends in here he's focusing on not losing his mind.
TRUJEQUE: Basically, what it is is mental warfare. Like, I'm telling you right now, this place will either change you or make you worse. You know what I'm saying? If you're not strong enough mentally, it'll crush you.
HAVERTY: Solitary confinement has been the go-to method for handling discipline and security in American prisons since the 1980s. High-risk inmates like Trujeque wind up here, but studies show that a lot of inmates are sent to solitary for minor infractions. According to an estimate by the Vera Institute of Justice, as many as 80,000 people are held in isolation cells right now across the U.S. Solitary is so widespread, so common, that a lot of states don't even track how many people are in isolation or for how long. But a growing number of lawmakers, judges and activist are convinced that this policy is immoral and violates basic human rights. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke this spring at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
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ANTHONY KENNEDY: We had a case come before our court a few weeks ago. The prisoner had been in an isolation cell, according to the attorney - I haven't checked it out - for 25 years. Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.
HAVERTY: This new scrutiny has been sparked in part by some high-profile cases. Kalief Browder, who was held in solitary confinement and faced brutal attacks by guards at Rikers Island for two years without a conviction, ended his life in his home earlier this summer. Some U.S. prisons are trying to reform and scale back their use of solitary, even for high-risk inmates like Niklas Trujeque. In Maine, that means group therapy. In Colorado, it's more hours of recreation. Here in New Mexico, the first step was moving many low-risk inmates out of solitary. The idea now is that men still housed in level six can earn their way out in nine months with good behavior. That's still more time in solitary than most reform advocates and mental health experts support. But not so long ago, New Mexico's solitary unit was packed with inmates who were thrown into cells and forgotten.
GREGG MARCANTEL: And then we really had no clear-cut way to get them out of there.
HAVERTY: Gregg Marcantel is head of New Mexico's prison system. He says when he came in as correction secretary four years ago, that heavy reliance on solitary had been unquestioned for decades.
MARCANTEL: It's very, very easy to overuse segregation. I mean, for a guy like me, it's safe, right? It's safe. If these prisons are quiet, I don't get fired.
HAVERTY: One of Marcantel's new programs gives men the chance to live in a more open, group setting if they swear off their gang affiliations. For corrections leaders like Marcantel trying to make change, it's a struggle to get it right. None of his reforms get rid of solitary. He says he can't ever see it going away.
MARCANTEL: But in a perfect world, one that maybe involves unicorns (laughter) yeah, I would love to get rid of it.
HAVERTY: So far, though, New Mexico's first steps toward reform seem to be working. Two years ago, 10 percent of the state's prison population was in solitary. That's down to 6 percent this year. But experiments like this one have proved fragile around the U.S., sometimes unraveling or getting rolled back. The only way Marcantel's reforms will last is if front-line corrections officers buy in. Guys like Sergeant Juan Sena, who's worked in the solitary confinement unit here for more than a decade, are torn.
SERGEANT JUAN SENA: It's just - it's going to be more dangerous.
HAVERTY: As we walk back to the prison gate, Sena admits he's nervous about the changes that are coming, what it will mean for inmates who have only known the walls of a cell for years to be back in general population.
SENA: So it's going to be a little - lot more dangerous for these guys 'cause these guys aren't used to coming out and a little more dangerous for the staff, but it's what we signed up to do and we're here to do the job.
HAVERTY: Sena also says these reforms are probably the right thing to do. Not everybody agrees, though, and getting corrections officers to let go of a strategy they've been using for decades won't be easy. But according to the ACLU and state officials in New Mexico, there's been no measurable increase in violence since these reforms began. For NPR News, I'm Natasha Haverty in Santa Fe.
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