New York Prisoner Spent More Than 20 Years in Solitary Confinement: Report
It's not easy to feel a great deal of sympathy for many of the convicted criminals locked away in New York's prisons, we know. But a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union might just conjure up at least some compassion.
Then again, maybe it won't -- they're still criminals.
Regardless, the NYCLU released a report this morning detailing the "inhumane, arbitrary use of solitary confinement" in New York state prisons. One of the more compelling anecdotes found in the report is the story of one particular inmate who's been locked away in solitary confinement for more than 20 years.
"Extreme isolation is one of the most extreme forms of punishment one human can force on another, and in New York State it is often a disciplinary tool of first resort," NYCLU legal fellow Scarlet Kim says. "People spend weeks, months and even years cut off from human interaction and rehabilitative services for non-violent, minor misbehavior. The process for determining who is sent to extreme isolation is arbitrary - there is virtually no guidance or limitations on who can be sent to extreme isolation, for what reasons, or for how long."
As outlined in the report, titled Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons, more than 8 percent of New York's prison population is held in isolation at any given time.
Last year alone, prison officials handed down 13,500 "extreme isolation" sentences, the vast majority of which were for non-violent offenses (between 2007 and 2011, only 16 percent of those in solitary confinement were there for a violent or weapons-related offense, according to the report).
According to the report, about half of the prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in an isolation cell completely alone. The other half are confined in an isolation cell "the size of a parking spot" that they share with another prisoner, a practice that "forces two strangers into intimate, constant proximity for weeks, months and even years on end."
"Mentally, being here drains energy out of you," one prisoner told researchers. "I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal."
Following the year-long study, NYCLU researchers came to the following conclusions:
- 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.
Given the findings, the group offers the following solutions:
- adopting stringent criteria, protocols and safeguards for separating violent or vulnerable prisoners, including clear and objective standards to ensure that prisoners are separated only in limited and legitimate circumstances for the briefest period and under the least restrictive conditions practicable; and
- auditing the current population in extreme isolation to identify people who should not be in the SHU, transitioning them back to the general prison population, and reducing the number of SHU beds accordingly.
"New York could implement these reforms starting tomorrow," NYCLU senior staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass, co-author of the report, says. "Doing so would finally bring an end to a disastrous and unnecessary decades-long human rights crisis and put New York where it should be: at the vanguard of smart and effective criminal justice reforms that both improve public safety and reaffirm our state's commitment to human dignity."
The New York State Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to our request for comment. We'll let you know if they get back to us.
See a website that accompanies the NYACLU's study here.
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