The argument against placing inmates in disciplinary confinement—known by the public as “solitary confinement”—is fairly straightforward: The policy has outlived its usefulness and has no place in an enlightened society. This argument is usually presented with an example of a sympathetic individual who is serving time in a special housing unit, someone who has done good deeds or whose guilt is called into question.
Herman’s House and its portrayal of Herman Wallace fit this narrative.
The film shows that Herman Wallace has used his time in prison to rehabilitate himself, and we see examples of the positive impact he has had on other inmates. Meanwhile, the circumstances leading to his placement in special housing are even questioned by the widow of the man he is alleged to have killed.
In this respect, the film is quite effective and makes a compelling argument against the use of disciplinary confinement in the case of Herman Wallace.
But citing a singular incident to discredit a practice that is successfully applied to thousands of inmates is not a compelling policy argument. And like most advocates who have called for the abolishment of disciplinary confinement, the film fails to offer an alternative solution.
Disciplinary confinement is a punishment for violating the code of conduct inside the prison walls. Furthermore, it is one of the only tools we have to remove inmates from the general population in order to protect correction officers and other inmates. Frequently, placement in a special housing unit is also the best way to ensure the safety of the inmate who is placed there.
I can’t speak from personal experience about Louisiana’s state corrections system. But I can say that, sadly, here in New York there are far too many examples of inmates perpetrating violence on themselves, other inmates or correctional officers.
Last August, inmate Robert Hayes—serving time at Auburn Correctional Facility for murder—attacked a corrections sergeant who was interviewing him. The assault was unprovoked; Hayes lunged out of his chair and threw the sergeant against a table and to the ground. Hayes then used his hands to attack the sergeant’s face, scratching his eye and eyelid, which later required five stitches. The sergeant sustained two broken ribs, a punctured lung and a swollen knee and spent days in the hospital. Inmate Hayes was moved to disciplinary confinement. And this is not an isolated example. In a typical year in the New York State corrections system, there are more than 1,200 reported incidents of inmate-on-inmate or inmate-on-staff assaults. If we eliminated special housing units, that violence would not simply disappear—in fact, the numbers would probably skyrocket.
If we do not have the ability to separate these inmates from others, what are we to do with them? What other tools will correctional officers be given to ensure safety inside prison walls or prevent the disruption of the rehabilitation of other inmates?
Inmates are absolutely entitled to their rights and should never be subjected to unreasonable or arbitrary punishment. In New York, no inmate is assigned to a special housing unit without due process, including a legal hearing.
But it’s equally important to remember that correctional officers are public servants who put their safety and lives on the line for the public good. Members of my union, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), work in some of the most dangerous environments in the state. Any discussion of special housing must include the fact that New York’s prison system, like other prison systems across the country, houses some of the most violent and troubled individuals in our society. In those settings, correctional officers must be given the tools to manage these systems safely for the good of everyone inside—and outside—the walls.
Donn Rowe is the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) and an active corrections officer with more than 30 years of experience. NYSCOPBA represents more than 27,000 active and retired critical law enforcement personnel, including state correctional officers and correctional sergeants.