NEWS: No Peace Outside “The Box” for People with Mental Illness in New York’s Prisons

By Paul Grondahl. Excerpted from the Albany Times-Union.

atuJeff  Rockefeller never got past the eighth grade growing up in Troy. He spent his  20s in the Capital  District Psychiatric Center and has struggled with severe depression and  suicidal thoughts.

“He’s never had a day of peace in his life,” his mother said.

Now 44 years old and released from state prison five months ago, Rockefeller  spent nearly 20 months, half his 40-month incarceration, in solitary  confinement. Even as a free man, he still struggles with sleeplessness,  nightmares and crying fits. “I was locked up in a cage like an animal,” he said.  “It’s torture.”

“He’s different since he got out,” said his girlfriend, Mary, a 66-year-old  retired state worker who asked to be identified only by her first name. “He  can’t sleep. He’s jumpy. He’s having a hard time easing back into his former  life. Nobody should be treated the way he was.”

She recalled his anguished letters from prison, writing that he couldn’t take  it anymore and wanted to end his life. In phone calls from prison, he broke down  in sobs.

Rockefeller’s psychiatric problems — which helped land him in “The  Box” and worsened during his long months in 23-hour-a-day disciplinary  isolation — symbolize a form of punitive incarceration that prisoner advocates  call inhuman. Correction officials defend it as an effective method to control  unruly inmates.

Prison watchdog groups said Rockefeller’s prison experience is a sad but not  uncommon saga. On any given day, about 4,500 inmates are in solitary confinement  in New York’s prisons, according to the state Department  of Corrections and Community Services. There are currently 8,197 mentally  ill inmates out of a total prison population of 54,643. Three of the 14  prisoners who committed suicide in 2012 were in solitary confinement, according  to DOCCS records.

Prison suicides between 2001 and 2010 rose 186 percent to the highest level  in 28 years, according to the Correctional  Association of New York State, a watchdog group.

Prisoners in solitary are confined to cells 6 feet by 8 feet, with almost no  human contact. One hour per day, in newer prisons, a caged balcony is unlocked  remotely so inmates can breathe fresh air. Lights and shower are controlled  remotely. Meals are pushed through a slot in a reinforced cell door. Inmates  experience intense sensory deprivation in these so-called Special Housing Units,  or SHUs…

Read the full article for quotations from Jack Beck and Jennifer Parish and references to CAIC!

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