To await trial on state-level fraud charges, Paul Manafort is headed to Rikers Island — dubbed “Torture Island” by criminal justice activist and reform leader Glenn E. Martin — where the former Trump campaign manager will be held in isolation to protect him from the violence that rages on in the facility.
Having seen Manafort sent to a place where prosecutors and law enforcement implicitly cede that his safety is imperiled, many have countered that the conditions he will endure are not technically "solitary confinement." The original report from The New York Times said that Manafort would be housed in a wing of the prison hospital with other inmates who require protection; the New York Post incorrectly reported that “solitary confinement isn’t the same as being kept in protective custody.”
As two people who spent a total of more than 18 months living under these type of conditions, we can report that, no matter what you call them, all of these conditions amount to solitary confinement. American correctional facilities have a long list of labels they can slap on inmates physically restricted from access to other inmates and many prison resources: restricted housing, segregated housing, protective custody, chronic discipline, security risk groups. Almost every time, these labels apply to the same cells in the same building. Solitary confinement is solitary confinement, whatever those in charge of the institution choose to call it.
And, even when it's called by any other name, it’s still torture.
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The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated six years ago that about 80,000 people lived in some type of solitary confinement in the United States; the latest number being bandied about now is 61,000. Neither of those estimates are correct because institutions who use different nomenclature — calling their isolation units “restricted housing” or something else — don’t count the people living under that designation in the "solitary confinement" numbers they hand over to the federal government. The real number is, thus, much higher.
Right now, there could be as many as 100,000 people living in parking space-sized cells with only a bed, a combination toilet-sink and virtually no contact with other people (except for a human hand extended through a drop slot in the door to hand them their meal).
Living in such sensory straits causes severe psychiatric damage, manifesting itself in symptoms such as paranoia, psychosis and suicidal ideation. Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, interviewed inmates in solitary confinement and found that people living in that kind of deprivation developed obsessive thoughts, including desires for violent reprisal for being placed in such conditions. Their time in isolation also impaired their ability to engage in normal interactions with people upon reentering the general population.
Perhaps this explains why prisons and jails have become hotbeds of violence; solitary confinement contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle.
Examples abound: Assaults and even a murder of a guard have plagued Minnesota prisons for the past year. Inmates in Mississippi have sent reporters pictures of other prisoners carrying “Samurai swords” as weapons within their confines. In Alabama, after an extensive investigation, the Justice Department concluded last month that several state prisons are so violent that merely living inside them constitutes a constitutional violation, being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.” (The state had until two weeks ago to fix the conditions or face a federal lawsuit.)
All three states are known for their reliance on solitary confinement and their resistance to reform.
And though it has reduced use of solitary confinement in recent years, Rikers Island is hardly immune from violence, as the state has acknowledged. Two assaults have occurred in the last week: in one, a detainee pulled a pipe from the wall and weaponized it. The very violence that the state of New York is trying to prevent from befalling Manafort — but very few others — is at least partially caused in part by the conditions in which it’s placing him for his own alleged protection.
Aside from the psychiatric damage that isolation can inflict on a prisoner, solitary confinement doesn’t necessarily protect people from all violence. In fact, the opacity and separation of isolation units often protect staff members who abuse inmates in these conditions.
Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who spent 40 years in solitary confinement, described being beaten in the stairwell of the isolation unit in his memoir. Ava Duvernay’s Netflix documentary, "When They See Us," spends considerable time telling the story of Korey Wise, the one of the so-called Central Park Five who was sent to Rikers and other adult prisons because he was 16 at the time of sentencing. "When They See Us" shows that the staff assigned to a solitary confinement unit can be just as threatening and dangerous as any inmate can be — and protective status doesn’t protect anyone from them.
There’s also something unseemly about the larger reaction to placing anyone in isolation, including a wealthy, older white man. On social media, some liberals were gleeful at the prospect that a Trump enabler would be subjected to an environment known to be psychologically distressing, the same one experienced by people with more color in their skin and far less culpability.
This kind of penal populism has historically been associated with right-wing politics, but the comfort of some on the left with seeing inhumane prison conditions as appropriate societal vengeance shows that no one is immune to punitive impulses. After all, it’s that inclination that allowed us to develop these harrowing conditions of confinement in the first place.