“Women and Isolated Confinement”

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WOMEN AND ISOLATED CONFINEMENT

Women held in isolated confinement are subjected to dehumanizing treatment—treatment that makes it difficult for them to maintain their dignity, hygiene, nutrition and personal property. They can get in trouble for something as simple as attempting to talk to the person next to them. They are denied commissary privileges which provide them with food to supplement prison meals.

Menstruating women only receive one to two sanitary pads at a time and have to call out to officers to request more when needed. Showers for all women held in isolated confinement are limited to two or three a week. Menstruating women are provided a bucket of water for supplemental “bucket bathing.”

Women in isolated confinement are humiliated in other ways—their requests for assistance are often ignored or minimized, they are spoken to disrespectfully, their property is often stolen or destroyed, and if they complain about this negative treatment, they face retaliation. Health care and mental health for incarcerated women are already woefully inadequate and this is exacerbated for women held in isolated confinement.

Serving an isolation sentence also undermines the maintenance of family connections. Families are often not aware or advised that their loved one is serving an isolation sentence. While mothers can continue to see their children, they are segregated from other parents and children in the visiting room. If a woman serving an isolation sentence also has her phone calls restricted as part of her sentence, her family connections are interrupted, compounding her isolation.

The specific, negative impact that isolated confinement has on people is well known: fear, anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings, disorientation, emotional strain, decompensation, and sleep deprivation, to name the most common. For women, they are subjected to sleep deprivation and resort to excessive sleeping as a way to cope. Women also experience high levels of re-traumatization due to past histories of childhood and adult abuse; heightened vulnerability (actual or perceived) to sexual assault by prison staff; heightened feelings of shame as incarcerated women on lock; and the negative impact on their reputation in the prison community as a “bad girl.”

Once home from prison or jail, women describe ongoing feelings of social isolation and triggering as a result of being held in isolated confinement. The long-term impacts of isolation on women include nightmares, paranoia, phobias, social isolation and fear of small spaces. Some women report they find it difficult to share their isolation experiences with close family or even a therapist, while others talk about their isolation with counselors or therapist post-incarceration for many years after they have been incarcerated.

The practical, immediate step that New York prison and jail officials can address to curb the overuse of isolated confinement is to pass and implement the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Isolation (HALT) bill. The provision in HALT will do away with the torture of isolated confinement as we know it. It will stop the overuse of isolated confinement as a sledgehammer for minor infractions. It will also open up avenues for addressing the core behaviors that get people placed in isolated confinement by utilizing more interventions and therapies. It will also address officers’ negative behavior and abuse of authority.

THE GENDER-SPECIFIC IMPACT OF ISOLATION

  •  Re-traumatization – The act of being on lock re-traumatizes women who are abuse survivors, triggering flashbacks, anxiety and depression.
  •  Excessive sleeping and crying – Women overwhelmingly resort to excessive sleeping and crying.
  •  Vulnerability to sexual assault – Women who report physical or sexual abuse by officers are vulnerable to retaliation.
  •  Difficulties accessing health care, mental health care and personal hygiene products – Women who are menstruating do not receive adequate sanitary napkins and endure the humiliation of having to call out to officers from isolation cells to request them.
  •  Interruption in mother-to-child and family contact – Women serving isolation sentences are segregated from other families during visits with children. They are also denied family reunion trailer visits. Mothers experience aggravated worry about their children’s and family’s well being.
  •  Danger to pregnant women and new mothers – Pregnant women may have impeded access to their obstetrical care, and their risk of exacerbated postpartum depression is increased. New mothers in prison or jail nursery programs are vulnerable to the loss of their nursery placement, separation from their child for the rest of their incarceration, and/or placement of their child in foster care if family or friends cannot help out.
  • Shame and stigma – Incarcerated women endure exacerbated societal stigma by being labelled a troublemaker or problem person in the prison or jail community.

Learn more about solitary confinement in NYS prisons and how you can TAKE ACTION to end this practice that has been called torture by international human rights officials.

Download “Prison Within Prison: Voices of Women Held in Isolated Confinement in New York.”

Download a pdf version of this page.