Archives for November 2013

NEWS: Roundup of National News on Isolated Confinement, October/November 2013

By Fran Geteles-Shapiro

November 9, 2013

A new report by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) and the ACLU of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) reports on the systems abuses of solitary confinement, including: overuse; isolation of people suffering from serious mental illness; use of prolonged segregation for the mentally ill; and, the lack of transparency and oversight.  Reforms are recommended.

November 8, 2013

A reporter discusses his visit to the Ad Seg cellblock of a prison in Maine where the typical number of prisoners in isolation has been reduced by more than 50%.  He points out that those who remain in solitary are still in grim ugly, super harsh conditions from which there are constant reports of cruelty, inadequate medical care, understaffing, and deliberate mixing of predators and the vulnerable.‘super/#ixzz2kejcZjsZ

November 6, 2013

A report on Solitary Watch summarizes the findings of the two psychiatrists who were asked by the NYC Board of Corrections to assess whether the city is in compliance with their Mental Health Minimum Standards.  Their highly critical report found that the standards are being violated. After the report was published the BOC voted to begin rulemaking to limit the use of solitary confinement in NYC.

The American Public Health Association (APHA) issued a statement against solitary confinement recommending: people with serious mental illnesses and juveniles be excluded from solitary; people in solitary confinement be closely monitored and removed if their physical or mental health deteriorates or necessary health services cannot be provided; alternative means of discipline should be created; isolation for clinical or therapeutic purposes should be permitted only upon the order of a credentialed health care provider; and, individuals isolated for their personal safety must have access to programs, treatment, education, recreation, visitation, and social interactions comparable to that afforded prisoners in the general population. 4D2C5BB2CF2D/0/C2SolitaryConfinement.pdf

November 3, 2013

A new report from the Taskforce on Preserving Medical Professionalism in National Security Detention Centres says that doctors and psychologists working for the US military violated the ethical codes of their profession under instruction from the defense department and the CIA to become involved in the torture and degrading treatment of suspected terrorists.  They were in effect told that their ethical mantra “first, do no harm” did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill. The taskforce wants rules to ensure doctors and psychiatrists working for the military are prohibited from taking part in interrogation, sharing information from detainees’ medical records with interrogators, or participating in force-feeding, and they should be required to report abuse of detainees.

November 2, 2013

A summary of quantitative data available about who is held in segregated confinement in our nation’s prisons and jails suggests that in many states the harsh conditions of solitary confinement are probably disproportionately affecting people of color.

October 31, 2013

The ACLU of Montana won an agreement regarding access to outdoor exercise for prisoners in a jail.  The jail in this case had outdoor recreation for two of its housing units holding adult males, but not for the housing units holding ad seg, female populations and juveniles.  The jail has agreed to build recreation areas onto these housing units and provide daily access.

October 29, 2013

A former prison official and an advocate for the rights of incarcerated people together suggest reforms in the use of solitary confinement in CA and NY:  no more applying it to minors or for nonviolent offenses or using it for crowd control; allowing opportunity to read, receive visits, make phone calls, and have other forms of human contact and stimulation; shorter periods of isolation; periodic review; alternative sanctions; and, the use of “conditional discharges” for first-time nonviolent offenders who “clean up their records.”

October 27, 2013

North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who has a history of childhood sexual abuse alleging that he was abused at North Carolina’s Central Prison by guards who repeatedly doused him with excessively high doses of pepper spray, causing him great pain. The suit raises questions about the treatment of individuals in solitary confinement.  The plaintiff in the case spent years cycling between cells in the prison mental ward and solitary confinement – often in response to behaviors that are primary symptoms of his illness.

October 23, 2013

At the urging of Colorado’s ACLU’s chapter, a senator is sponsoring a bill to find alternatives to the use of so-called administrative segregation for prisoners who have been diagnosed with serious psychological disorders. Citing the recent killing of a state corrections official by a man released directly from solitary confinement, he says, “We are doing the least safe thing.”

October 22, 2013

An article for the ACLU discusses the importance of the UN’s efforts to update their Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) with particular focus on the need for sufficient protections against lengthy solitary confinement.

October 19, 2013

Russell Shoatz’s lawyers submitted a communication to Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture urging him to inquire into why a “father, grandfather and great grandfather” is being held in extreme isolation despite having a near-perfect disciplinary record for over 20 years.  One of the attorneys expressed the hope that an investigation by the office of the special rapporteur will bring an end to indefinite isolation.

October 18, 2013

A man in prison in Illinois, who was arrested in the lead up to Occupy Chicago, has been in solitary confinement since July for possessing anarchist literature. He isn’t accused of plotting to harm guards or other incarcerated people, but his political beliefs alone are described as a threat to the safety and security of persons or the facility.

Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, has requested access to California prisons to investigate the use of solitary confinement and ensure that the rights of prisoners’ are being protected. He said he wants access to any part of any prison he chooses and the freedom to speak with any incarcerated individuals of his choosing.”,0,15846.story

Amidst growing criticism of its abundant use of solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons has initiated an audit to review its “restricted housing operations.”  But, since the audit has been contracted out to a nonprofit best known as a military think tank and will be conducted largely by former corrections officials, it seems unlikely to bring any dramatic change to the lives of the people held in isolation in the federal prison system. Meanwhile, the federal government has completed purchase of a prison meant to house still more isolation cells.

October 17, 2013

Questions are being raised about whether the extensive use of Secure Housing Units in CA have reduced gang membership or violence in the prisons.  Meanwhile prison officials have begun to provide a new “step-down” program which might reintroduce individuals into the general population gradually, over four years.

October 16, 2013

Lawyers for individuals who have been condemned to death in CA are asking a U.S. District Judge to require psychiatric hospitalization for the most mentally ill people on death row and to ban the use of pepper spray as a means of controlling them.  They showed videos of individuals being drenched with burning pepper spray and dragged from their cells for refusing medication or psychiatric evaluation.  Prison officials argue their care is adequate and no one was hurt in the incidents depicted in the videos.,0,5753340.story#axzz2iwsid0gN

Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years in prison, 12 of them in solitary confinement on death row in Texas, used funds he received from the state for his wrongful conviction to set up a law school scholarship in the name of Nicole Cásarez, the Houston attorney and journalism professor who fought for eight years to secure his freedom.  He also used some of the money to start a foundation to help at-risk children with incarcerated parents.

October 14, 2013

The US military has announced the end of the six-month mass hunger strike among detainees at Guantánamo Bay, but human rights groups argue that such proclamations are disingenuous as at least 16 inmates are still force-fed daily, and two are in hospital. Also, several of the men and their lawyers have reported that hunger strike participants were coerced into ending their participation in the strike by harsh treatment including isolated confinement, extreme humiliation including forced nudity, temperature manipulation cell searches timed to disrupt their sleep, and denial of their belongings including necessities like eyeglasses.  A particular victim of this harsh treatment was Shaker Aamer, though Britain’s Prime Minister is actively trying to have him released and returned to the UK.

September 30, 2013

An attorney with the ACLU of VA criticizes recent efforts of the corrections department for failing to include the needs of individuals with serious mental disabilities. She notes the lack of treatment programs. She also discusses the difficulty mentally ill individuals would have adhering to the new step-down program designed to enable people in solitary to earn a return to the general population, pointing out that they are thus likely to remain in solitary indefinitely.

September 26, 2013

CCR attorneys for 10 men in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in Ashker v. Brown, have asked the courts to make the lawsuit a class-action-suit because hundreds more are suffering in the same appalling conditions and any remedies should apply to everyone affected. The lawsuit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process.

Speaking of the recent ending to the hunger strike at Pelican Bay Prison, one of the self described “principal prisoner representatives” said the strike may resume if deemed necessary.  One factor in the suspension of the hunger strike was the promise of hearings at the CA state assembly in Sacramento. The representative said he does not share the optimism of outside supporters who hailed a public relations victory when the strike ended, but believes “we have to wait and see what the politicians come up with.”

A strong statement about children in solitary confinement, including the critically relevant issue of children tried as adults.

As part of a federal class-action lawsuit brought last year by the ACLU of Illinois, three court-appointed experts found that Illinois’ youth prison system is violating the constitutional rights of young people in their custody by failing to provide adequate mental health care and education and by unnecessarily keeping youths in solitary confinement of “harsh and of substandard quality.” They pointed out the inadequate staffing, including the fact that there is not a single psychiatrist specializing in children and adolescents.  Negotiations to fix the problems are currently in progress.,0,4795774.story

September 23, 2013

A 61-year-old man with a history of violence and murder which occurred many years ago while he was in prison, who has since been in solitary confinement for 30 years under a “no human contact” order, has challenged this “cruel and unusual treatment.” Although mental health experts have diagnosed severe emotional and cognitive effects, a U.S. District Court supported the Bureau of Prison’s assertions that he has been unharmed by this extreme isolation because it has not deprived him of life’s basic necessities. The case is now before the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

September 21, 2013

The Texas Tribune analyzed data from violent-incident reports from 99 state prisons filed from 2006 to 2012, and found: far more reports of violence at facilities housing high numbers of mentally ill and violent incarcerated people than at other prisons; reports of violent episodes are more prevalent at smaller institutions that house only psychiatric patients; and, there are more incidents of officers using force at these facilities. Advocates the numbers show that the state’s approach to incarcerating the mentally ill is not working, but criminal justice department officials argue that the state facilities are safe, and programs aimed at helping mentally ill individuals are working.

September 16, 2013

Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3, who has been in solitary confinement for over 40 years, has gone to court requesting a restraining order against the state of LA to stop strip and cavity searches, which he says occur whenever he leaves his cell – i.e. “as often as six times a day.”  After the Angola 3 sued against such searches in the late 70s, a consent decree was agreed to by the parties which held that they violated the rights of these men and must be curtailed or ceased.  However, when the judge responsible for the decree died recently, the searches were re-instated, thus requiring the return to court.



VOICES: Solitary Confinement’s Invisible Scars

By Five Omar Mualimm-ak. Reprinted from The Guardian.

nys doccsAs kids, many of us imagine having superpowers. An avid comic book reader, I often imagined being invisible. I never thought I would actually experience it, but I did.

It wasn’t in a parallel universe – although it often felt that way – but right here in the Empire State, my home. While serving time in New York’s prisons, I spent 2,054 days in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement, out of sight and invisible to other human beings – and eventually, even to myself.

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but gray walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of “recreation”.

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Everyone knows that prison is supposed to take away your freedom. But solitary doesn’t just confine your body; it kills your soul.

Yet neither a judge nor a jury of my peers handed down this sentence to me. Each of the tormented 23 hours per day that I spent in a bathroom-sized room, without any contact with the outside world, was determined by prison staff.

[Read more…]

NEWS: Reports Condemn Solitary Confinement in New York City’s Jails, As Officials Weigh Its Future

By Marlies Talay. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

rikers wireTwo recent reports provide a scathing picture of how solitary confinement is employed as a routine disciplinary measure on Rikers Island and in other city jails. The reports are particularly critical of the use of extreme isolation and deprivation on individuals with psychological disabilities, including mentally ill teenagers.

The two reports were prepared for the Board of Correction (BOC), which functions as the oversight agency for the New York City jail system, ensuring that all city correctional facilities comply with minimum regulations of care. In recent months, under pressure from local activists, the BOC has been reconsidering the liberal use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails, and conducting fact-finding on the subject.

The first of two reports commissioned by the BOC was released in September 2013. Dr. James Gilligan and Dr. Bandy Lee authored the report, addressing the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails.  This past June, Dr. Gilligan and Dr. Lee were asked to assess whether the city’s jails were in compliance with the current Mental Health Minimum Standards set forth by the Board of Correction.

On Rikers Island, which houses more than 10,000 of the 13,000 women, men and children in the city’s jails, 1 in every 10 people is in isolated confinement at any time.  Many are placed there for nonviolent offenses at the discretion of corrections officers.  This distinguishes New York as a city with one of the highest rates of prison isolation in the country–about double the national average.

The report’s findings are a resounding criticism of the current use of punitive segregation, and point both to violations of the Mental Health Minimum Standards as well as to practices within the jail system that are harmful to those who suffer from mental illness. The report’s authors point to snapshot data in which the number of people with mental illness in solitary confinement is almost double the number of those with mental illness in the jail population generally. The authors conclude that mentally ill people in the jail system are being disproportionately placed in solitary confinement.

The report also claims that the nation’s prisons and jails have become “de facto mental hospitals,” pointing to the fact that roughly 95% of people with mental illness who are currently institutionalized are in correctional facilities, while only 5% are in mental hospitals.

The Mental Health Minimum Standards mandate that mental healthcare be provided in a setting that is conducive to care and treatment. The report contends that prolonged use of solitary confinement for mentally ill people violates these Standards, because it has been used punitively, to create a stressful environment and to remove social contact, rather than to provide therapeutic services.

Moreover, the report holds that the Standards should be amended to emphasize that those with mental illness should not be held in segregation.  As the report states, “The goal of mental health treatment (and also of correctional practice) should be to do everything possible to foster, enhance and encourage the inmates’ ability to…behave in constructive and non-violent ways after they have returned to the community from jail.”

The city responded to the report with a point-by-point rejection of its findings, claiming that the principal conclusions drawn by Drs. Gilligan and Lee were based on an erroneous legal interpretation of the Mental Health Minimum Standards and that the report’s conclusions and further recommendations were unsupported by sufficient evidence. This response was put forth by a multiple agencies, including the Office of the Mayor, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Drs. Gilligan and Lee responded in turn, claiming that a strictly legal interpretation ignored the changing conditions of the current prison system as well as a misunderstanding of human psychology and behavior.  In order to reach a true understanding of the harm caused by punitive segregation, the authors say, we need to take into account the psychological effects of isolation, as well as the recent influx of people with mental illness into our prisons and jails.

One week after Drs. Gilligan and Lee published their report, the BOC voted unanimously to begin rulemaking to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York City.

These events follow a meeting held in June, in which the Board of Correction voted against limiting solitary confinement in the city’s jails, rejecting a petition put forth by the grassroots group known as the Jails Action Committee (JAC). The petition, if it had been accepted, would have limited solitary confinement as a last resort punishment for violent behavior only, and banned it entirely for children, young adults, and those with mental and physical disabilities.

BOC member Dr. Robert Cohen, a Manhattan physician and expert on prison health and mental health care, vocally supported JAC’s petition. At this June meeting, he called the use of solitary “dangerous,” especially for people with mental illness and adolescents, who are confined in punitive segregation at particularly high rates.  “During the past three years,” he pointed out, ”the percentage of prisoners languishing in solitary confinement has increased dramatically, without benefit in terms of decreased violence or increased safety on Rikers Island,” either for corrections officers or the prisoners themselves.

Dr. Cohen’s statement rings especially true after the release of the most recent BOC report in October, one month after the first report was published. Providing new information about the suffering of mentally ill youth placed in solitary confinement, the report describes the experiences of three adolescent boys at Rikers Island, each held in punitive segregation for more than 200 days, each suffering from mental illness. Youth and adolescents are among the most vulnerable populations in New York’s jail system; the report makes clear, however, that segregating mentally ill youth as a form of punishment is both negligent and dangerous.  The city has yet to respond to this latest criticism of solitary confinement.

The consequences of time spent in solitary confinement are lengthy and harmful, Cohen and other experts say; they include negative effects on mental health, including severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and panic attacks. Furthermore, studies have shown that common patterns of depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts often leave individuals more prone to unstable and violent behavior, which can in turn lead to higher rates of recidivism.


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