New York state is reforming solitary confinement.

Thousands of people spend months alone in a tiny cell. New York is doing something to fix that problem.

Approximately 78,000 people currently live in New York prisons.

Almost 4,000 of them live in tiny cells the size of a bathroom, closed off from most human contact. It’s a troubling practice, which is why New York has decided to make some key changes to its solitary confinement rules.


Image by jmiller291/Flickr.

A major lawsuit recently pointed out the horrific conditions of solitary confinement.

Based on that lawsuit, brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York state will now be placing fewer prisoners in solitary cells. If they are placed in solitary, the folks will stay there for a shorter time, and they won’t have to face as many extreme conditions.

While this is an incredibly important step forward, it also demonstrates how much more work needs to be done to reform prisons in America.

The thousands of people serving time in solitary confinement on a daily basis wake up in a box that’s about 6 feet by 10 feet. They often spend their entire day without any human contact or even a book to read. And sometimes, they don’t even have access to palatable, nutritious food.

In New York, the average inmate who gets sentenced to solitary confinement will stay there for 190 days.

Let that sink in: Six whole months in the same tiny room with almost no one to talk to, nothing to do, and sometimes nothing nutritious to eat.

Screenshot from NYCLU/YouTube.

Typically, isolation is used as a disciplinary measure for prisoners who have committed infractions. But research has shown that forcing a prisoner to spend a lot of time alone in a room with no human contact and limited recreation doesn’t help to improve their behavior.

People who have served time in extreme isolation understandably have difficulty transitioning back to life outside a small cell. A report by the NYCLU also found that solitary causes "severe emotional and psychological consequences," which can lead to aggression and outbursts, both inside prison and when they’re released.

For the next five years, New York has committed to making prison isolation better.

Not perfect, but better. Here’s what’s that means, specifically:

1. Almost one-quarter of the inmates who are currently in solitary will be placed in different programs — ones that are safer, allow for human interaction, and are meant to rehabilitate the people involved. New York will operate under the premise that people who are developmentally disabled, addicted to drugs, or in need to behavioral therapy shouldn’t be denied the help they need.

2. The people who remain in solitary won’t be there indefinitely. For most disciplinary violations, there’s now a three-month cap on isolation.

3. And the actual experience of solitary confinement will be a little more humane, too. Some inmates will have more access to mental health services and therapy, and everyone will get to make occasional phone calls to family. Also, food can’t be used as punishment anymore.

People who are in prison are still people. And prisons are called "correctional institutions" for a reason: They’re supposed to help people rehabilitate.

That’s why New York’s decision to overhaul solitary confinement is so important.

Photo via iStock.

It’s also why this overhaul needs to be the first of many, many steps.

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Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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