NYCLU Report Exposes Inhumane, Arbitrary Use of Solitary Confinement in NY State Prisons

October 2, 2012 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union today released an investigative report documenting in unprecedented detail how the use of solitary confinement in New York State prisons is arbitrary and unjustified; harms prisoners and prison staff; and decreases prison and community safety.

“New York must end its inhumane and harmful use of extreme isolation,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This destructive practice not only endangers the individuals subjected to its cruelty, but the corrections staff guarding them. It wastes taxpayer money, makes our prisons and communities less safe, and degrades our state’s commitment to respecting basic human decency.”

The report, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, follows an intensive, year-long investigation that involved extensive communication with more than 100 people who have spent significant amounts of time – in one case, more than 20 years – in extreme isolation. The authors interviewed prisoners’ family members and corrections staff, and analyzed thousands of pages of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) records obtained through the state’s open records laws.

The report is accompanied by a website – www.nyclu.org/boxedin – featuring excerpts of prisoners’ letters about life in extreme isolation, a library of DOCCS data and records, statistical analyses and a video featuring the voices of family members whose loved ones have been held in extreme isolation.

Last year, New York doled out more than 13,500 extreme isolation sentences – about one for every four people incarcerated. Just over 8 percent of New York’s prison population is in isolation at any given time, the vast majority for non-violent offenses – only 16 percent of isolation sentences from 2007 to 2011 were for assault or weapons.

“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,” said NYCLU Legal Fellow Scarlet Kim, co-author of the report. “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.”

Over the past 20 years, New York has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate an extensive network of extreme isolation cells, which DOCCS calls “Special Housing Units” or “SHUs” – and prisoners call “the Box.” New York has nearly 5,000 SHU beds located in 39 prisons across the state, including two dedicated extreme isolation prisons – Upstate and Southport Correctional Facilities – that combined cost about $76 million a year to operate.

New York practices a unique brand of “solitary confinement.” About half of the 4,500 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 with another prisoner, a practice that forces two strangers into intimate, constant proximity for weeks, months and even years on end.

The NYCLU uses the term “extreme isolation” to capture the practice of subjecting one or two people in a cell to the conditions most commonly understood as solitary confinement. While both single- and double-celled prisoners are subjected to the same punishing deprivations, the NYCLU found that double-celling often resulted in violence and particularly debilitating psychological consequences.

Juveniles, the elderly, the mentally ill and those with substance dependency are all routinely sentenced to extreme isolation. The NYCLU found that black New Yorkers are disproportionally represented in New York’s isolated prison population. While blacks represent about 14 percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly 50 percent of the prison population and 59 percent of the population in extreme isolation.

Prisoners describe the idleness, despair and violence that characterized life in extreme isolation. No activities, programs or classes break up the day. No phone calls are allowed. Few personal possessions are permitted. “Recreation” is an hour, alone, in an empty outdoor pen, no larger than the cell, enclosed by high concrete walls or thick metal grates.

The unrelenting monotony strips people of their dignity and even their will to live. Many have suffered severe anxiety and mood swings, manifested by irrational and uncontrollable outbursts of rage.

“Mentally, being here drains energy out of you,” reported one prisoner. “I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal.”

Based on a year of study and analysis, the NYCLU found that:

  • 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.

Extreme isolation is different than prisoner separation, which has long been an 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 deprivation of extreme isolation – a point of consensus among corrections officials in other states, legal scholars and international human rights bodies.

The NYCLU recommends that New York end its dependence on extreme isolation by:

  1. 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
  2. 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,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass, co-author of the report. “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.”