For Thousands in New York's Prisons, Christmas is Just Another Day in Solitary Confinement

Governor Cuomo tours Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
Governor Cuomo tours Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
Governor's Office

Nicholas Zimmerman will spend Christmas locked in his cell at Clinton Correctional Facility, the men’s state prison 20 miles from the Canadian border. Instead of opening presents with his family, he’ll wake to a breakfast tray slid through a slot in his door. He’ll spend most, if not all, of the day inside his cell. Maybe he’ll be allowed out for one hour where he can exercise alone in a caged yard. If he’s really lucky, he’ll also be allowed to shower.

Phone calls aren’t allowed in solitary, so Zimmerman won’t be able to wish his family a merry Christmas, or hear what gifts they exchanged, or even say, “I love you.” Mail call might bring him a card from his mother.

Zimmerman, who entered the system in 2002 on weapons possession, bail jumping and bribery, has spent 12 Christmases this way.

According to the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, Zimmerman is one of approximately 4,500 people who are spending the holidays in solitary confinement. On Friday, dozens of people rallied outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown office calling on him and the state legislature to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the use of isolation to 15 consecutive days and create alternatives to solitary confinement for people separated for longer periods of time.

Outside the entrance to Cuomo's Midtown office, they serenaded passers-by and staff with altered Christmas carols. “Support the bill to HALT confinement,” they sang to the tune of "Deck the Halls." “It’s your New Year’s human rights assignment.”

Among the carolers were men who served sentences in solitary. Tyrell Muhammad spent seven years in Special Housing Unit, or SHU, a cellblock dedicated to 23-hour isolation. Muhammad recalled that each Christmas the men in the cells around him hoped that mail call would bring a card. On Christmas Day, men would shout through their cell doors, reminiscing about past holidays with their families. “Those conversations last but so long,” he told the Voice. Now working with the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors prison conditions, Muhammad said that in solitary, “people lose touch not only with their families, but also with their mental health.”

Ken Bright spent two years in the SHU. That first Christmas, instead of carols, he heard men screaming through their cell doors. Prolonged isolation, accompanied by sensory deprivation, the lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological issues, including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The time locked away from human contact began to affect Bright as well. “I thought I was going to go insane,” said Bright, who now runs a reentry organization called the LIFE Progressive Services Group. “I did go insane at one point.”

Holidays in prison are hard, he told the Voice, but “it’s even worse in solitary. You have nothing. You can’t talk to other people, fraternize with other people, read books.”

Carolers outside Governor Cuomo's Midtown office on Friday.
Carolers outside Governor Cuomo's Midtown office on Friday.
Victoria Law

No one knows the exact numbers in solitary throughout the state’s prisons and jails. That’s in part because the practice goes by several different names and not a lot of record keeping. There’s the SHU, where Muhammad and Bright were confined. According to the Department of Correctional and Community Supervision (DOCCS), 3,332 people were confined to the SHU at the beginning of December.

Then there’s keeplock, in which a person is confined either in a separate cellblock or in his or her own cell for at least 23 hours each day. No numbers are available for the number of people in keeplock, but Jack Beck of the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project estimated their number at more than 1,000, based on past monitoring visits. “People can be in keeplock for months, not just a few days,” he said.

The numbers in local jails are even less known. While Rikers Island documents how many people are placed in segregation (and those numbers are decreasing in part because of policy changes prohibiting solitary for teenagers and young adults), Beck notes that no data is compiled from jails throughout the state.

What is known is that, regardless of the name, people spend 23, if not 24, hours locked inside a small cell. Some, like Bright, Muhammad and Zimmerman, spend years in isolation.

That’s what the carolers want to change with the HALT Solitary Act. They delivered the card to a staffer from Cuomo’s mailroom, who promised to make sure the governor received their card.

“You don’t have to isolate someone,” reflected Muhammad. “You can separate them [from others] and address the root of the problem. Putting them in solitary doesn’t get to the root of the problem.” Looking back at his own years in the SHU, he added, “I’m tired of seeing us destroyed.”


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