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Now we're going to hear an inside view on the debate about solitary confinement in this country. Roughly 80,000 inmates are being held in solitary across the U.S., many for months or years at a time. Critics are pushing to dial those numbers back. But they face opposition from many corrections officers who say solitary confinement has been a trusted tool in American prisons for half a century. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio has this report from New York.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Last year, state prison officials here reached a tentative settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union. Both sides agreed to shelve a pending legal battle and instead collaborate, developing new rules that could sharply limit the time inmates spend in solitary confinement. That could mean downsizing New York's network of isolation cells known as SHU units. A lot of people praise the deal, but it angered Mike Powers.
MIKE POWERS: Our SHUs are not these dungeons that people portray them to be.
MANN: Powers is a corrections officer, a sergeant and head of the state prison guard union. He says officers use solitary confinement strategically every day to maintain order and safety, especially in New York's often violent maximum security prisons. He says the threat of isolation is an important deterrent.
POWERS: I don't know how many times I've had an offender or an inmate tell me that - not going back in there again, Powers. You can count on that.
MANN: This is the debate happening across the U.S. Many corrections officers see solitary confinement as a normal practice, relied on for decades. Reform advocates say isolation is used far too often. They point to the fact that many of the 4,500 inmates held in New York State's isolation cells before last year's agreement were teenagers, pregnant women and inmates who committed minor infractions.
FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Five out of six offenses that lead people into solitary are for nonviolent ticket infractions, like excessive bearding or having too many stamps.
MANN: Those widely-accepted figures are from a Civil Liberties Union report released in 2012. Five Mualimm-ak, who's now a reform activist, spent 11 years behind bars on weapons charges, including five years in solitary.
MUALIMM-AK: Socially, it made me numb. I felt like I was stripped of all the skills that I had, used to using on a human-being level.
MANN: Solitary confinement is getting a second look from politicians as part of a general shift away from tough crime policies and because studies show isolation can harm inmates' mental health and lead to more crime once they're released. In a statement, New York's acting corrections commissioner, Anthony Annucci, said the reform effort here will make prisons, quote, "more humane." But with details of New York's new policy still being hashed out, Soffiyah Elijah, with a pro-reform group called the Correctional Association, worries that opposition from prison guards will block significant change.
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: That's the No. 1 hurdle because they are on the front line. They're given amazing discretion to abusively use the ability to put somebody in solitary confinement. And it's their default mechanism.
MANN: That distrust between reformers and corrections officers has been building for years. But there has been progress. New York's Corrections Department has already sharply cut the number of 16 and 17-year-olds held in solitary. And there are signs that some front-line prison workers and administrators are willing to try alternatives.
JEAN KING: In terms of using it just as a punishment for the sake of punishing, I'm not really sure that it's that effective.
MANN: Jean King was deputy supervisor at New York's Woodbourne Correctional Facility. Before retiring last year, King sent a lot of inmates to solitary, but she now thinks minor infractions should be treated differently.
KING: If somebody smoked marijuana, comes back with dirty urine, does it really pay to put him up in solitary for 90 days? Would it not be better to force him into a substance abuse treatment program at that point?
MANN: With tens of thousands of inmates held in solitary across the U.S., this effort to change New York's prison culture is being watched closely, in part to see whether more corrections officers will buy in. Taylor Pendergrass, with the New York Civil Liberties Union, says if new policies are going to work, guards will need more support and training and also better alternatives to solitary, including drug counseling and conflict resolution programs.
TAYLOR PENDERGRASS: The solution is not about preventing corrections staff from making decisions. It's about making those decisions much more carefully as opposed to just locking the person up in a solitary cell for many years.
MANN: Final details of New York's solitary confinement rules will be negotiated over the next three months, with corrections officers expected to play a major role in the closed-door talks. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
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