For 23 hours a day, Kristofer Acosta lived in an 8-by-10-foot cell. Sometimes, he wouldn’t have human contact for weeks on end. For month-long stretches, on and off for five years, he stared at the same gray walls, spending his waking hours measuring time in endurable increments.
“When you’re locked up, especially in solitary, you find ways to cope,” says Acosta, 30. “You play mental games with yourself, make negotiations, play with your imagination. You tell lies to yourself to get through it.”
Last Thursday, Acosta learned from a friend’s Facebook post that Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, the same judge who effectively ended stop-and-frisk, approved a class-action settlement to reduce the duration, frequency, and inhumane conditions of solitary confinement in New York state prisons.
The settlement calls for the ending of solitary confinement for over 1,100 inmates, about one-quarter of those now being held in solitary. It also eliminates isolation being used as punishment for minor infractions, and puts limits on the length of most solitary sentences.
The judge is hoping the agreement will put an end to years of extreme isolation, which prison-rights advocates say constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and “will serve as a model for other states that are addressing issues of prison reform.”
Acosta was glad to see that steps were being taken toward reform, but noted that, “[the state is] beginning to recognize how it affects a person’s psyche, and they realize the long-lasting effects, but what definitive actions are being taken to help those that are out?”
Almost seven years have passed since Acosta’s release. But memories of the five years he spent locked up on an armed robbery charge still dog the father of four. The experience profoundly changed him: He suffers from panic attacks, and has difficulty processing his emotions.
“In prison, you can only imagine the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Now that I’m out, I can see it — and I can take action to move toward it.”
Acosta isn’t alone in thinking the ruling, a result of a 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer, filed by the New York American Civil Liberties Union, doesn’t go far enough.
“The Peoples Settlement is an important step in the right direction,” says Sarah Kerr, staff attorney of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society. But the deal doesn’t address phone access for people in solitary, a crucial link between inmates and their families. Prisoners are only allowed one call every sixty days, says Kerr. The reforms do not apply to administrative segregation — a special housing unit for inmates who pose a threat in general population but haven’t broken any rules — nor do they cap the length of time a person may be held in solitary. “The possibility remains,” says Kerr, “that individuals will continue to spend decades in harmful isolation.”
The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association was, perhaps unsurprisingly, against the settlement. In a press release last December, the over 26,000 member-strong prison staff union claims that “our state’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis… Since 2012, the number of inmate assaults on staff has almost doubled. Limiting the ability to have real measures to discipline violent inmates will only increase those numbers in the coming years.”
Research shows the mental-health effects of prolonged isolation on prisoners. A recent study by the American Journal of Public Health found that inmates punished by solitary confinement were nearly seven times more likely to commit self-harm.
There are those among the ranks of correctional officers and prison staff who see the merits of reducing the use of solitary confinement, and even some of them think that the deal missed an opportunity to fix some of the current system’s worst abuses.
“Some people in NYS have spent upwards of thirty years in solitary and it won’t affect them… the settlement doesn’t have a limit on the total time someone spends. It has some guidelines, but it’s only for individual infractions,” says Scott Paltrowitz, of the Correctional Association of New York. Prisoners, he says, accumulate multiple infractions, which aren’t covered as are those who are confined in solitary “based on an assessment on dangerousness in the facility, and people have spent decades in solitary confinement for that.”
Paltrowitz, along with other advocates for prison reform, believes much more needs to be done. They’re pushing for legislation called the Humane Alternative to Longterm Solitary Confinement Act. The bill is now in the state legislature. The law would bring the state into compliance with international conventions on imprisonment — In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Mandela Rules, which calls for no person being held in solitary beyond fifteen days. In recent years, more than ten states have adopted measures to reform solitary confinement, including California, Colorado, and Ohio.
“If somebody acts in a way that is dangerous to other people,” says Paltrowitz, “there can be separation without isolation and torture.”
Without support, Acosta seeks solace in music. In addition to Acosta’s expanding activism, he’s hoping that his music will speak to the kids of his neighborhood, determined to make sure young people in the north side of Queens where he was raised don’t caught in the same cycle of crime and incarceration that engulfed him.
“I would never wish this fate on anyone,” he says. “But what I do wish is that people could be a fly on the wall in a prison because that’s the only way to really understand what I went through.”
Acosta uses music as self-therapy. “Music helped me in that regard, by allowing me to channel my feelings into art, process and reflect on my prison experience,” he says, describing the kind of music he produces, by providing him with an outlet.
One of his songs, “Eric Garner,” directly addresses the aftereffects of solitary confinement: “The anxiety is killing me, I’m feeling like I can’t breathe,” he raps.
From songs like this, he’s personally healing, and he hopes to help others do the same.
“All kinds of shit went down there,” Acosta recalls. “Jail stabbings, issues with correction officers — and I’m an outspoken person. That’s why I was thrown in the box, because when your life is under the control of someone else — like in prison — you can’t have a voice.”