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
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:
Given the findings, the group offers the following solutions:
“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
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.