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Op-Ed: No Human Dignity in ‘The Box’ (Albany Times-Union)

By Taylor Pendergrass

Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Brian Fischer explains that when it comes to the use of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons, “The key element is, and always will be, safety for staff and inmates alike.”

We couldn’t agree more.

But after an intensive yearlong study of New York’s use of solitary confinement, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that DOCCS’ use of extreme forms of isolation and deprivation decreases safety for prison staff, prisoners and our communities.

Each year, 25,000 people are released from New York’s prisons. Thousands will have spent time in what the state calls “Special Housing Units” and what prisoners call “The Box.” Approximately 2,000 prisoners are released directly from isolation to the streets. They receive no transitional programming before their release.

Over the course of our investigation, we communicated with more than 100 individuals who spent significant time in extreme isolation. We interviewed corrections staff and spoke with prisoners’ family members. We analyzed thousands of pages of data obtained through open records laws.

Our findings are described in a report published today, “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons.”

Once in isolation, individuals are confined for 23 hours a day in a cell about the size of a parking spot. Almost all personal property is forbidden. Meals arrive through a slot in the door. There are no vocational or educational classes. An hour of “recreation” is spent in empty pens that often resemble dog kennels.

These conditions cause grave emotional and psychological harm, including severe depression and uncontrollable rage. For the vulnerable, particularly those suffering from mental illness, extreme isolation can be life-threatening. The deprivation of necessities, such as food, exercise and basic hygiene, intensifies the suffering.

“Mentally, being here drains energy out of you,” reported one prisoner, who is in extreme isolation at Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City. “I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal.”

About a third of New York prisoners in extreme isolation are “double-celled” with another prisoner. In other words, DOCCS puts two strangers in a tiny cell and subjects both to severe deprivation. Double-celled prisoner are locked up together — showering and defecating in front of each other — 23 hours a day for weeks, months and even years on end. This practice commonly results in violence and often can be more psychologically debilitating than standard solitary.

“To be clear, we did not fight for any other reason than that we found we simply could not get along while being locked together … 24 hours in a cell,” reported a prisoner, who fought with his cellmate while double-celled at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, extreme isolation is not reserved for violent offenders. From 2007-2011, DOCCS sentenced prisoners to isolation more than 68,100 times, often for minor misbehavior. Only 16 percent of these sentences were for assault or weapons. We spoke with a prisoner who spent six months in extreme isolation for refusing to return a food tray, and another who got four months for getting a homemade tattoo.

The reason for this overuse is clear: DOCCS puts almost no limits on who can be sent to extreme isolation, for what reasons, or for how long. The use of extreme isolation endangers correction staff, who receive few resources to safely deal with individuals buckling under the toll of isolation and deprivation or their unpredictable behavior when they return to the general prison population.

No one disputes that chronically violent prisoners should be separated from the general prison population. But that can occur 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 human rights bodies.

Commissioner Fischer has conceded that DOCCS’ use of extreme isolation must be evaluated. Our report lays out sensible reforms that will make our prisons and communities safer. First, DOCCS should establish clear and objective standards to ensure prisoners are separated only when necessary, under the least restrictive conditions and for the shortest time possible. Then DOCCS should audit the current population in extreme isolation, identify people who do not belong there and return those prisoners to the general prison population and reduce the number of extreme isolation beds accordingly.

These steps will align New York’s prisons with smart and effective corrections practices and reaffirm our commitment to respecting basic human dignity.

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

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