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Testimony Before the New York City Council on the Use of Solitary Confinement in City Jails

Testimony of Johanna Miller on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union

June 12, 2014

The New York Civil Liberties Union respectfully submits the following testimony regarding the City Council’s consideration of Int. 292, which would require the commissioner of the Department of Correction to publicly report statistics on punitive segregation in city jails.

With 50,000 members and supporters, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is the foremost defender of civil liberties and civil rights in New York State. Our mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles and values embodied in the Constitution, New York laws, and international human rights law, on behalf of all New Yorkers, including those incarcerated in jails and prisons. The NYCLU is an outspoken advocate for evidence-based corrections practices that improve public safety and respect fundamental human dignity.

We are pleased to support the City Council in bringing much-needed oversight to the practice of punitive segregation in city jails. On any given day, approximately 800 people are held in isolation in New York City jails. The overwhelming majority of individuals in New York City’s jails are pre-trial detainees, meaning that hundreds of individuals are placed into solitary confinement—the most severe form of punishment currently practiced in the United States other than the death penalty—before they have even had their day in court. The use of punitive segregation is in direct conflict with basic constitutional and human rights principles. Moreover, research has consistently shown that prolonged extreme isolation causes a grave risk of harm for prisoners and negatively impacts safety inside and outside jail walls.

We hope this oversight hearing and the legislation on today’s agenda are the first step toward comprehensive reform of the myopically punitive and harmful conditions and practices that have persisted in New York City jails for far too long. Ultimately, New York City should abolish punitive segregation and turn toward evidence-based alternatives that have been proven to be safer, more effective, and more humane.

I. Introduction
“Solitary confinement” goes by many labels: lockdown, the Bing, the Box, Special Housing Unit, segregation. All these terms refer to the same basic practice of confining a human being in the most punitive and isolating conditions possible. Typically, this means confinement for approximately twenty-three hours a day in a space about the size of an elevator, without meaningful human contact, for weeks, months, or possibly years at a time. As one man described the experience of isolation to the NYCLU:

With so little to do your mind rots with thoughts that are uncommon or unnatural and you wonder where the hell did that come from. . . . A lack of any constructiveness only contributes to destructiveness and the Prison System is designed to make a person like myself and other unfortunate to self destruct become numb lose the sense of reality to the degree that any commotion at all is better than vegetating by letting hours pass without nothing on your mind or will to do anything.

The damaging effects of solitary confinement on an individual’s mental health are well-documented. A recent study of New York City jails confirms a strong link between self-harm and solitary confinement. For healthy adults the impact of solitary confinement can be devastating even after a short period of time; but the risk is especially acute for adolescents, individuals with mental illness or disabilities, and those with serious health conditions. Because solitary confinement exposes people to severe harm, international human rights bodies, professional societies including the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Public Health Association, and U.S. Senators have condemned its use and urged reform consistent with human rights standards.

Solitary confinement is also extremely short-sighted and costly from a corrections and public safety perspective. Inside prison, far less severe punishment in combination with interventions (for example, a referral to a counselor) has been shown to be as or more effective as a disciplinary response, while the use of solitary confinement itself can lead to higher rates of facility violence and disruption and make work even more difficult and dangerous for custody staff. Outside of prison, researchers have found higher rates of recidivism among people released straight from solitary to the community.

Around the country, corrections systems are reforming the way solitary confinement is used. Evidence-based alternatives to solitary confinement—such as targeted programming designed to address problematic behavior while maximizing as much human contact as can be safely allowed—have made corrections systems safer for prisoners and staff alike. Here in New York, in response to a lawsuit brought by the NYCLU, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision initiated reforms to its solitary confinement practices by immediately reducing or eliminating its use for particularly vulnerable populations—juveniles, pregnant women, and the developmentally disabled—and by committing to an evidence-based analysis of its practices in collaboration with outside experts that will shape additional future reforms across the entire prison system that will benefit all prisoners.

The need for a similar examination of solitary confinement practices in New York City jails has been brought home by the recent deaths of Jason Echevarria, Jerome Murdough, and Bradley Ballard—all of whom reportedly had mental illness and were left to die gruesome deaths in isolation cells at Rikers Island. Their deaths bring urgency to the Committees’ consideration of segregation policies and practices in the city jails. Intro. 292 is a critical first step.

II. Reform Recommendations
Solitary confinement—the practice of subjecting human beings to extreme forms of isolation and deprivation—should be completely abolished. The NYCLU strongly urges New York City to take steps to implement the following recommendations:

a) Collect and analyze data on solitary confinement practices and use it to guide specific evidence-based reforms

Data collection and analysis has been the starting point for successful reforms to solitary confinement in other jurisdictions, including Washington, Colorado, Illinois, and Maine. Subject to the legislative recommendations below, the NYCLU believes that Intro. 292 will help lay a similar foundation for reforms to solitary confinement practices in New York City jails. As data becomes available, however, the City Council should also take steps to ensure the data is thoroughly analyzed and used to guide the direction of future reforms, for example, to inform a rule-making process or blue-ribbon panel convened to issue formal recommendations regarding the use of segregation. In addition, the Council should use its budgetary power to ensure the Department of Corrections has adequate resources to improve the situation and those resources are being used appropriately and with proper assessment.

b) Immediately Remove Vulnerable Populations from Segregation

While the use of solitary poses a serious risk of harm for any individual, the risk is especially severe for vulnerable prisoners, such as individuals with mental illness, individuals with disabilities, and juveniles. While removing these vulnerable populations from solitary confinement should never be a substitute for comprehensive reforms to the practice in its entirety, the importance of taking immediate steps to protect these individuals is undeniable. Furthermore, implementing alternatives to isolation for these vulnerable groups can be an effective way of spurring a larger shift that reorients jail staff away from outdated punitive approaches and toward more effective and more humane corrections practices. Ultimately, initial steps with regard to specific vulnerable population can serve as the framework for broader system-wide reforms that will ensure that all prisoners are protected from inhumane and unconstitutional solitary confinement practices.

c) Implement comprehensive reform by eliminating punitive segregation and separating prisoners only when absolutely necessary for safety, under the least restrictive conditions and for the shortest time possible

If the New York City jails prove to be similar to other jails and prisons throughout the country, the data will show that an overwhelming number of prisoners are being thrown into solitary confinement for reasons that have nothing to do with a need to keep people safe. For this large percentage of prisoners, jail staff can address misbehavior just as effectively and much more humanely by employing far less punitive sanctions. Accurately identifying the small percentage of prisoners who actually need to be separated from the general prison population, in and of itself, is likely to address a significant part of the problem and will, in turn, allow the Department of Correction to focus resources on the small number of prisoners who are actually so violent or chronically disruptive that they simply cannot be safely managed in the general prison population. For this group, however, there is no reason that removal and separation from the general prison population must consist of crushing punitive deprivation and near-total isolation from human contact. To the contrary, in these cases the conditions of confinement should be designed to maximize therapeutic programming aimed at assessing and addressing the root cause of the chronic misbehavior—mental illness, substance abuse, etc.—and to allow as much human contact as possible. For these prisoners, there must be an individualized treatment plan with well-defined milestones to be achieved in a set time frame that are designed to return the prisoner to general population and normal human interaction as soon as possible.

III. Legislative Recommendations
We applaud the City Council’s efforts to bring transparency to punitive segregation practices in New York City jails, and in particular, the impacts of those practices on prisoners’ mental and physical wellbeing. We have recommendations for categories of information that should be added to the reporting requirements at issue today.

a) Contextual Data
First, we recommend the reporting include statistics about the general (non-segregated) population of city jails (disaggregated by facility) in order to provide relevant comparisons about the segregated population. Without contextual comparisons to the general prisoner population, the interpretive value of the data reported under Intro. 292 will be unnecessarily limited. Contextual data is the difference between knowing that 200 prisoners in punitive segregation are on antipsychotic drugs and knowing that prisoners in punitive segregation are 200 times more likely to be on antipsychotic drugs.

At a minimum, the following data should be included to allow relevant statistical comparisons:

  • Total population;
  • Race, age, and gender of prisoners;
  • Number of prisoners in the general population who are receiving mental health services;
  • Number of prisoners in the general population who died, committed or attempted suicide, are on suicide watch, caused injury to themselves, or were seriously injured;
  • Number of prisoners in the general population who were transferred to psychiatric hospitals or MHU;
  • Number of prisoners in the general population prescribed anti-psychotic medications, mood stabilizers or anti-anxiety medications, disaggregated by the type of medication;
  • Number of requests from prisoners in the general population for medical or mental health treatment, attendance at religious services, telephone, shower, visitation and library privileges and the number granted;
  • Number and type of allegations of use of force and sexual assault and the dispositions of those allegations.

b) Transition Services
An area that should be of serious concern to the council is the practice of releasing prisoners directly from segregation to the streets without transition services. If a prisoner’s sentence or detention ends while he or she is in segregation, a direct transition to the streets of New York can be dangerous for both the released individual and the community. Re-entry after detention is a complicated and difficult process for all prisoners; those who have been in segregation may experience additional difficulty in social interactions, controlling their emotions, and readjusting to civilian life. We recommend this bill be amended to include reporting of the total number of prisoners released directly from segregation to the streets, a risky if not dangerous practice that should be reformed. In addition, the council should require an accounting of re-entry and transition services offered to prisoners while segregated or between segregation and release.

c) Criminal Charges & Pre-trial Detainees
The NYCLU’s study of the use of segregation in New York State prisons revealed that prisoners were sometimes held in extreme isolation for months or years of their sentences for minor infractions of prison rules. In city jails, as many as 75 percent of prisoners are in pre-trial detention; approximately 40 percent are held on misdemeanor or violations charges.

While we don’t yet know the exact nature of charges that result in segregation sentences (a vital piece of information that this bill seeks to provide), the nature of the population is such that most prisoners in segregation are probably not there because of a serious safety risk. The United Nations has recommended limiting the practice of holding pre-trial detainees in solitary confinement. Without knowing the reasons prisoners are held in segregation, their underlying charges or convictions, or their status as pre-trial detainees, the city cannot begin to take serious stock of its reliance on disciplinary segregation.

We recommend Int. 292 be amended to include reporting on the charges and/or criminal convictions against people who are held in segregation, including a separate count of pre-trial detainees.

d) Dispositions of Complaints/Allegations
We commend the council for seeking information on the number and types of complaints of abuse against and by prisoners in segregation. This is vital information for understanding the impact of segregation on prisoners and staff. For an even more complete picture, we recommend the city also require reporting on the dispositions of those allegations—whether substantiated or unsubstantiated—and what punishment or disciplinary actions were taken as a result. To protect prisoner and staff privacy, names should be redacted. Similar information is currently collected and reported by the Civilian Complaint Review Board about allegations of police abuse.

IV. Conclusion
We thank the Council for providing this opportunity to share our recommendations for reforming the practice of solitary confinement and segregation in city jails. As we have tragically seen in recent months, this is an issue with serious human costs. Achieving greater transparency is a first step in improving conditions for prisoners at city facilities; policymakers and the public must have access to information on the use of segregation and its impact on various groups in the prisoner population. We look forward to having additional conversations with the Council and the administration about reforming the use of segregation, and other ways to improve health and safety in New York City jails and in the larger community as prisoners are released.

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