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Op-Ed: Isolation of Prisoners Does Even More Harm (Press & Sun-Bulletin, Ithaca Journal, Star-Gazette)

By Taylor Pendergrass

Corrections officers at Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City work in one the darkest corners of our state’s prison system.

Southport is one of two New York prisons dedicated to extreme isolation. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, deprived of all meaningful human contact and mental stimulation. They cannot access rehabilitation services. They cannot make phone calls. “Recreation” is an hour outside alone in an empty cage.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has concluded a year-long study of New York’s use of solitary confinement, described in a report released Tuesday: “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons.” We found that ceaseless isolation and deprivation endangers prisoners and corrections staff. It undermines prison safety and, ultimately, makes our communities less safe.

Individuals in extreme isolation often suffer grave emotional and psychological harm, including severe depression and uncontrollable impulses, which can fuel violent outbursts that endanger prisoners and corrections staff.

Gaps in education and training hamper corrections officers’ ability to respond effectively to prisoners experiencing the deteriorating effects of extreme isolation. Furthermore, corrections officers in isolation facilities are forced to perform menial tasks, such as delivering food trays to prisoners, which undermines their authority and increases the likelihood of conflict.

Working in extreme isolation facilities has lasting negative consequences for corrections staff, including persistent discord and stress that follows them home. They fear retribution by prisoners and potential exposure by co-workers if they’re viewed as being soft. This discourages them from seeking help for their own mental health and emotional concerns and from intervening on behalf of prisoners.

Extreme isolation — the harshest possible punishment within the prison system — is a disciplinary tool of first resort. Last year, the state issued more than 13,500 extreme isolation sentences — about one for every four people incarcerated — mostly for non-violent misconduct. Only 16 percent of isolation sentences from 2007 to 2011 were for assault or weapons.

Extreme isolation weakens public safety. About 2,000 prisoners are released directly from isolation to our streets each year. While in isolation, they receive no rehabilitative services or transitional programming, leaving them unprepared to rejoin society.

Chronically violent prisoners should be separated from the general prison population, but separation can occur without punishing isolation and deprivation — a point of consensus among corrections officials in other states, legal scholars and international human rights bodies.

In fact, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Brian Fischer concedes that the state’s use of extreme isolation must be evaluated.

The Department of Corrections can swiftly enact two reforms to end the use of extreme isolation. It should establish standards to ensure that prisoners are separated only in limited circumstances, for the briefest period and under the least restrictive conditions practicable. Second, it should audit the population in extreme isolation to identify people who don’t belong there and transition them back to the general prison population. Any financial savings should be reinvested in corrections programming and staff.These reforms will improve prison and public safety and reaffirm New York’s commitment to human dignity.

Taylor Pendergrass is a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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