Human Rights, Mental Health and Faith-Based Organizations ask U.N. to Investigate Solitary Confinement in New York Prisons

February 5, 2013 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union – joined by more than three dozen representatives from human rights, civil rights, mental health and faith-based organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture – today submitted a letter to the United Nations requesting an investigation into the use of solitary confinement in New York State prisons.

The letter – addressed to U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez – alleges that New York’s use of extreme isolation and deprivation is inhumane, unsafe, arbitrary and implicates fundamental human rights protections, including “the right to be protected from torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” and “the right to be free from discrimination.”

“Every day, New York’s use of extreme isolation exposes thousands of people to grave physical and mental suffering,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This cruel and arbitrary punishment does not make our prisons or communities safer. It violates basic human rights protections and degrades our state’s commitment to respecting human dignity.”

In October, the NYCLU released Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, an investigative report that exposed New York prison officials’ use of extreme isolation, or solitary confinement, as a disciplinary tool of first resort.

From 2007 to 2011, New York issued more than 68,000 sentences to extreme isolation as punishment for violating prison rules. Only 16 percent of isolation sentences over that period involved violence or weapons. On any given day, approximately 4,500 people – about 8 percent of the entire New York State prison population – are locked down for 23 hours a day in isolation cells.

Prison officials routinely impose isolation sentences for non-violent, even petty, misbehavior, such as refusing to return a food tray, cutting class, or smoking cigarettes in undesignated areas.

The letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture asserts that New York’s use of extreme isolation implicates key human rights protections because it 1) subjects prisoners to grave physical and mental harm; 2) lacks safeguards to ensure isolation is used only in exceptional circumstances for the briefest period possible; 3) undermines the prison system’s rehabilitative aim by denying prisoners access to educational and rehabilitative programming; and 4) affects vulnerable prisoners, including juveniles and prisoners with mental illness.

“Isolating prisoners with minimal human contact and no educational or other programs flouts international human rights standards which require that all prisoners must be treated humanely, in conditions that will not harm their physical or mental health and which provide access to rehabilitation,” said Angela Wright, USA Researcher at the Americas Regional Program, International Secretariat of Amnesty International. “The human cost of such cruel treatment is likely to have severe consequences for the individuals damaged by the experience, and for society, and the community to which they will return.”

“The potentially harmful health consequences of solitary confinement, especially prolonged solitary confinement, are clear and well-documented,” said Allen S. Keller, MD, associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and director of the NYU School of Medicine Center for Health and Human Rights. “For reasons of both fairness and health, it is crucial that decisions about segregating individuals are made cautiously and fairly and are regularly reviewed.”

The letter highlights representative cases of individuals who have been subjected to extended periods in extreme isolation. These include:

  • An individual who has been held in extreme isolation for 27 years straight with no end date in sight.
  • Individuals who have served lengthy extreme isolation sentences for non-violent, drug-related rule infractions. One of these individuals sought help from prison officials to manage his substance abuse problem. Instead of providing treatment, prison officials punished him with six months in extreme isolation.
  • An individual confined in extreme isolation for more than two consecutive years as a result of separate punishments for non-violent misbehavior, including a six-month sentence for failing to return a food tray.

In an August 2011 report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that the use of solitary confinement can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which are proscribed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and under the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Extreme isolation is different than prisoner separation, which is a long-accepted corrections practice. Corrections officials can separate and remove violent or vulnerable prisoners from the general prison population without subjecting them to the punishing physical and psychological harms of extreme isolation.

The NYCLU’s report contains a list of recommendations that, if adopted by New York prison officials, would ensure that prisoners are separated only when necessary, under the least restrictive conditions, and for the briefest time possible.

In December, the NYCLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison official’s system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement that are responsible for the arbitrary and unjustified use of extreme isolation.

In response to the NYCLU’s report and lawsuit, New York officials have said that a review of extreme isolation policies and procedures is underway. But no one has publicly identified the scope of the internal review, a time frame for completion, or what opportunities, if any, will be provided for stakeholders – the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, mental health experts, legal advocates and the general public – to collaborate on proposed reforms. Nor has anyone said what action, if any, the state is taking to evaluate the approximately 4,300 individuals currently held in extreme isolation.

“There is a dire need for New York State to bring its jail and prison policies into line with human rights law and principles and end the use of solitary confinement and other extreme isolation practices,” said Steven Watt, senior staff attorney in the ACLU's human rights program.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur has a mandate to investigate allegations of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The United States has an obligation, affirmed by Resolution 2004/76 of the Commission of Human Rights, to cooperate with requests made by the U.N. Special Rapporteur.

The following organizations have representatives that are signatories to the letter: New York Civil Liberties Union; ACLU National Prison Project; ACLU Human Rights Program; Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture; the Legal Aid Society; the Center for Constitutional Rights; New York Province of the Society of Jesus; Psychologists for Social Responsibility; the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology; Islamic Center of Long Island; Pax Christi Metro New York; T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; the New York State Council of Churches; Metro New York Religious Campaign Against Torture; the Peace and Justice Task Force of the Unitarian Church of All Souls; the World Organization Against Torture; the Connie Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattanville College; Long Island Housing Services, Inc.; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement; the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center; Prison Action Network; the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock; the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University; the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Chapter of Ithaca Area; New York State Prisoner Justice Network; National Organization of Forensic Social Work; Be the Evidence Project; Mount Manresa Jesuit Retreat House; Uri L’Tzedek; Social Justice Committee of the Ithaca Monthly Meeting Religious Society of Friends; Jesuit Community of Staten Island; Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR); Ithaca Area Prisoner Justice Group; Southern Tier Independence Center; Southern Poverty Law Center; and Americas Regional Program, International Secretariat of Amnesty International.