NEWS: New York Prisons: A Human Rights Crisis in Our Own Backyard

By Elena Ladriscina, Legal Fellow, NYCLU. Reprinted from the ACLU Blog of Rights.

upstatenycluNew York has allowed a human rights crisis to fester in its prisons. Each day, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision subjects nearly 4,500 prisoners to solitary confinement and other forms of extreme isolation in prisons around the state. Locked down for 22 to 24 hours a day, for months or even years, without meaningful human interaction or programming, these individuals experience severe pain and suffering. Some even contemplate suicide. The majority of individuals subjected to these conditions are black. Juveniles, the elderly and people with physical disabilities, cognitive impairments and mental illness are subjected to this nightmarish regime. Not the slightest effort is made toward rehabilitation: Nearly 2,000 prisoners each year are released straight from extreme isolation to the streets.

International human rights law prohibits these policies and practices. On Tuesday, more than 30 human rights, civil rights, faith-based and mental health organizations sent a letter to Juan E. Méndez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, requesting that he investigate the New York State solitary confinement system and take all necessary steps to end the mistreatment of prisoners and bring New York in line with international human rights law and standards.

In his report to the U.N. General Assembly in August 2011, Mr. Méndez concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and “when used for the purpose of punishment, cannot be justified for any reason, precisely because it imposes severe mental pain and suffering beyond any reasonable retribution” for criminal behavior or breach of prison discipline. Ninety percent of the people in New York’s extreme isolation cells are held there for simply breaching prison rules—a fact highlighted in the NYCLU’s report, Boxed In: the True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons. Mr. Méndez also called for the abolition of solitary confinement for juveniles. However, as noted in our letter and discussed at length in Growing Up Locked Down, which was published jointly by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, New York continues to engage in this harmful practice.

Instead of strictly limiting the use of isolation, New York currently employs isolation as a disciplinary tool of first resort in a manner grossly disproportionate to the prisoner’s misbehavior. As we highlight in our letter, one prisoner in Upstate Correctional Facility spent six months in isolation simply for failing to return a food tray promptly.

The NYCLU has urged Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer to implement comprehensive reform of the solitary confinement system. Many others have made similar calls, including the New York State Bar Association, the New York State Catholic Conference, the New York Times, and the New York State Council of Churches.

These calls have gone unanswered. Although in October, Commissioner Fischer indicated that an internal review of policies and procedures was underway, there has been no further information from either Governor Cuomo or Commissioner Fischer about any comprehensive measures to respond to the issues raised in Boxed In. Nor has there been any indication of a plan to make the review process transparent or participatory. Until New York begins meaningful and comprehensive reform, prisoners will continue to be harmed and New York’s prisons will remain out of step with the rest of the world and an issue of concern for the international human rights community.


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