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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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

via Pexels

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