“The Box” is how New York prisoners refer to solitary confinement. Less colloquially, it’s the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), for Special Housing Unit, the state’s euphemism for its isolation cells. Officially, New York places prisoners in “disciplinary” or “administrative” segregation, but regardless of the label, the conditions are the same as in prisons across the country: twenty-three hours a day in a cell the size of the average suburban bathroom.
A common misconception is that solitary confinement is a punishment of last resort, reserved for inmates who present a threat of violence or escape. The reality—especially in New York, which has the highest rate of “disciplinary segregation” in the country—is that it’s very much a punishment of first resort, doled out for minor rule violations as well as major offenses. In New York, the most common reason for a stint in solitary is creating a “disturbance” or “demonstration.” This can mean anything from mouthing off to guards to fomenting a riot, and it often involves inmates with psychoses or other psychiatric problems. Second is “dirty urine”—testing positive for drugs of any kind. In a prison system where 85 percent of inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, drug use alone can get you up to ninety days in solitary, and a year if it happens multiple times. Other infractions include refusing to obey orders, “interfering with employees,” being “out of place” and possession of contraband—not only a shiv but a joint, a cellphone or too many postage stamps.
With some 80,000 prisoners in solitary, the United States leads the world in isolating its citizens as well as incarcerating them. Though growing local and national movements are fighting solitary confinement as costly, dangerous and fundamentally inhumane—and though states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce its use—in this bluest of states, the prison system is in effect rigged to keep its plentiful isolation cells filled, and thousands of inmates spend weeks, months, years, even decades in solitary. On any given day, there are about 4,500 men, women and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York State prisons. (In New York City’s jails, run under a separate system, there are close to 1,000 more.)
Secular humanist, freethinker, progressive, and bibliophile. I love living life, learning things, and meeting people.