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October 2, 2012

Big new report examines New York's use of solitary confinement

Nyclu_boxedin_cover_0A helpful reader alerted me to this new report coming from the New York Civil Liberties Union titled "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons." This NYCLU webpage, from which the report can be downloaded, provide a summary of its scope and contents. Here is how that summary starts:

This report, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, is the product of an intensive, year-long investigation that involved 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.

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.

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.

October 2, 2012 at 06:40 PM | Permalink


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The widespread level of cruelty and abuse of prisoners in US prisons has always astonished me. Such procedures are often the result of the lack of, or ineffective, monitoring by independent supervisory authorities of prison practices and standards. If the conditions would be unacceptable to you for your own close loved ones, then they should be unacceptable to society as a whole. In my view, the legal relationship between prison management and external independent (or at least Federal) supervisory bodies needs to be overhauled, and supported by executive and Supreme Court action. These cruel practices must stop.

Posted by: peter | Oct 3, 2012 5:05:37 AM

Somewhat off topic, readers of this blog might appreciate Law Man by Shon Hopwood, an account of a federal prisoner who became an "in house" counsel for prisoners & wrote various briefs, including one that was accepted for oral argument by the USSC. Apprendi was seen by him as a key turning point.

He is currently in law school but earlier worked at Cockle Law Brief Printing Co., a top figure in the field. His staff bio includes a link to an interesting law article he wrote.


Posted by: Joe | Oct 3, 2012 9:40:18 AM

My father was working at NY's SuperMax or 'MaxiMax' (Southport, Elmira) during the riot about 1994, in which an officer was fatally knifed with
over a dozen stabs by a 23-hr-a-day-confined 'maximan'.

People such as Peter, I may presume, will not allow us in NY or elsewhere to execute those such as 'maximan' for whom death is the most suitable response.

I haven't attempted to conclude what these murderous, rapist criminals should receive as an alternative,
but one must needs know the reason for the current sentences, as a determinant for possibly more proper punishments.

Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 3, 2012 1:43:51 PM

Adamakis's note reminds me that the ACLU "report" is heavy on detail about the awfulness of solitary confinement, but (so far as Doug's excerpt reveals) says not a word about what the prisoners so housed did to find themselves in such unpleasant accommodations. With that central fact undisclosed (now why would that be?), it's not possible for a fair-minded person even to start drawing a conclusion about whether the conditions of confinement are warranted.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2012 8:16:14 AM

Doug doesn't "excerpt" the 72 page report; he summarizes some things it says. The report actually DOES "say a word" (various actually) about why they were put there. In fact, "words" are said on page five alone. Drawing a conclusion might warrant at least looking at the report itself, not a brief summary of its content. I'm sure you can find it wrong even then.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 5, 2012 5:03:38 PM

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