New York Department of Corrections Defends -- but Is Reviewing -- Solitary-Confinement Policies

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a report yesterday detailing the "inhumane, arbitrary use of solitary confinement" in New York state prisons. Based on the report, the group is now calling for drastic reforms in how the New York State Department of Corrections deals with inmates in segregated housing units, where prisoners are often kept alone in their cells for 23 hours a day.

The DOC has since responded to the report, and while Commissioner Brian Fischer defends the need for segregated housing units, he says his office already has launched a review of the DOC's policies when it comes to solitary confinement.

"As society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we remove from general population inmates who violate the Department's code of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities," Fischer says in a statement the DOC provided to the Voice. "The possession of drugs, cell phones, and weapons pose a serious threat within this and any other prison system."

Following the year-long study, NYCLU researchers came to the following conclusions regarding the DOC's segregated housing policies:

  • New York's use of extreme isolation is arbitrary and unjustified. Extreme isolation is too frequently used as a disciplinary tool of first resort. Corrections officials have enormous discretion to impose extreme isolation. Prisoners can be sent to the SHU for prolonged periods of time for violating a broad range of prison rules, including for minor, non-violent misbehavior.
  • Extreme isolation harms prisoners and corrections staff. It causes grave emotional and psychological harm even to healthy and mentally stable inmates. For the vulnerable, particularly those suffering from mental illness, extreme isolation can be life-threatening. The formal and informal deprivation of human necessities, including food, exercise and basic hygiene, compounds the emotional and psychological harm. Prisoners in extreme isolation often lack access to adequate medical and mental health care. For corrections staff, working in extreme isolation has lasting negative consequences that affect their lives at work and home.
  • Extreme isolation negatively impacts prison and community safety. The psychological effects of extreme isolation can fuel unpredictable and sometimes violent outbursts that endanger prisoners and corrections staff. Prisoners carry the effects of extreme isolation into the general prison population. They also carry them home. Nearly 2,000 people in New York are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets each year. While in the SHU, prisoners receive no educational, vocational, rehabilitative or transitional programming, leaving them less prepared to successfully rejoin society.

Fischer, however, maintains that solitary confinement is necessary part of the prison system, noting that, "it is our duty to protect those in our custody, as well as our employees. . . . The use of disciplinary segregation is important to the overall well-being of any of our prisons."

That said, Fischer says he recognizes "the need to constantly review our policies to determine if what we're doing is effective and beneficial to everyone."

He says that his office has been reviewing SHU policies since the beginning of September and will provide a list of recommendations "based upon sound penological principles" as soon as the review is complete.

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