News & Politics

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

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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.