Archives for February 2014

VOICES: Doing “Bing Time”: Memories of a Mental Health Worker in Rikers Island’s Solitary Confinement Unit

A cell in Rikers Island's Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

A cell in Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following post is a chapter from an unpublished book by Mary Buser, who worked in various capacities in the mental health system on Rikers Island. In Buser’s own words: “I worked in the Rikers Mental Health Department as a psychiatric social worker for five and a half years, leaving Rikers in 2000. I started off as a student intern in the island’s sole women’s jail…[and] returned to Rikers to work in a maximum security men’s jail…[then] was promoted to assistant chief of Mental Health in another jail, where I supervised treatment to the island’s most severely mentally ill inmates. From there, I was transferred to my fourth and final jail, which was connected to the “Central Punitive Segregation Unit,” aka, the Bing. Here, I supervised a mental health team in treating inmates held in solitary confinement–determining whether or not someone warranted a temporary reprieve based on the likelihood of a completed suicide. Although I had become disillusioned with the criminal justice system, the Bing was my Rikers undoing. The final section of my manuscript is focused on my daily trips to the Bing, the inmates who occupied these cells, and my struggle to justify doing this work.” Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved in the episodes Buser describes.

As jails have come to replace psychiatric hospitals as repositories for people with mental illness, Rikers become one of the nation’s largest inpatient mental health centers (second only to the L.A. County Jail). A disproportionate number of these psychiatrically disabled individuals end up in solitary confinement, doing “Bing time” for rule infractions precipitated by their illness. Buser’s account of her time overseeing treatment in “the Bing” is of particular interest now, when years of activism by the Jails Action Coalition and two scathing reports commissioned by the New York City Board of Correction have finally spurred efforts to reduce the use of solitary and improve mental health treatment on Rikers. These efforts have thusfar yielded at best mixed results. –James Ridgeway

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

At the end of a long cinderblock corridor, a guard in an elevated booth passes the time with a paperback book.  Across from the booth, a barred gate cordons off a dim passageway.  Along the passageway wall are the words:  CENTRAL PUNITIVE SEGREGATION UNIT.

The guard looks up as I approach, and nods.  As acting chief of “Mental Health,” I’m a regular over here at the “Bing” – an unlikely nickname for this five-story tower of nothing but solitary cells — 100 of them on each floor.  Designed for Rikers Island’s most recalcitrant inmates, the occupants of these cells have been pulled out of general population for fighting, weapons possession, disobeying orders, assault on staff.  The guards refer to them as “the baddest of the bad” – “the worst of the worst.”  I’m not so sure about that.

The guard throws a switch and the barred gate shudders and starts opening.  Around a bend, I step into an elevator car.  Since the problem inmate is on the third floor, I hold up three fingers to a corner camera, waiting to be spotted on a TV monitor.  This is no ordinary elevator — no buttons to push here, likely engineered for some security purpose.  The sweaty little box starts lifting, and as the muffled wails of the punished echo through, my stomach tightens — the way it does every time I’m called over here, which is often.  Solitary confinement is punishment taken to the extreme, inducing the bleakest of depression, plunging despair, and terrifying hallucinations.  The Mental Health Department looms large in a solitary unit – doling out anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills.  If these inmates had no mental health issues before they entered solitary, they do now.  But even the most potent medications reach only so far, and when they can no longer hold a person’s psyche together – when human behavior deteriorates into frantic scenes of self-mutilation and makeshift nooses – we’re called to a cell door.

The elevator rattles open on the third floor.  Ahead, a foreboding window separates two plain doors, each one leading onto a 50-cell wing.  Behind the window, correctional staff hover over paperwork.  A logbook is thrust out, I sign it, and point to the door on the left, ‘3 South.’  When the knob buzzes, I pull the door open and step into what feels like a furnace.  A long cement floor is lined with gray steel doors that face each other – twenty-five on one side, twenty-five on the other.  Each door has a small window at the top, and on the bottom, a flap for food trays.

At the far end, Dr. Diaz and Pete Majors are waiting for me.  I hesitate for a moment, dreading the walk through the gauntlet of misery.  The smell of vomit and feces hangs in the hot, thick air.  Bracing myself, I start past the doors, trying to stay focused on my colleagues.  Still, I can see their faces – dark-skinned, young – pressed up against the cell windows, eyes wild with panic.  “Miss! Help!  Please, Miss!!”  They bang and slap the doors, sweaty palms sliding down the windows.  “We’re dying in here, Miss – we’re dying!”  Resisting my natural instinct to rush to their aid, I keep going, reminding myself that there’s a reason they’re in here – that they’ve done something to warrant this punishment.  The guards, themselves sweat-soaked and agitated, amble from cell to cell, pounding the doors with their fists, spinning around and kicking them with boot heels — “SHUT—THE  FUCK– UPPP!!

[Read more…]

NEWS: Lawsuit Secures New Limits on Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons

A cell in a New York State "Special Housing Unit."

A cell in a New York State “Special Housing Unit.”

By Jean Casella. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

Under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three people held in long-term solitary confinement, New York has agreed to a set of changes to its use of solitary and other forms of extreme isolation in state prisons. The agreement, announced on Wednesday, would bar certain vulnerable populations from isolated confinement, while for the first time setting firm guidelines and maximum durations for isolating others.

New York currently holds some 3,800 men, women, and children in 23-hour-a-day isolation in small, sometime windowless cells, either alone or with one other person. “The conditions inside New York’s isolation cells are deplorable and result in severe physical and psychological harm,” stated the original complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan in December 2012. The complaint, which charges the state with violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights under the 8th and 14th Amendments, continues:

Individuals are confined idle and isolated for months and years on end in tiny cells. They are allowed only one hour of exercise a day in barren cages smaller than their cell. As additional punishment, prison staff may issue orders depriving individuals of what little remains—access to nourishing and edible food, exercise, bedding, and showers may all be denied. At some prisons, two men are forced to share a single isolation cell for weeks and months on end, often leading to violence. Requests for mental health care must be discussed through the food slot in the cell door.

People are placed in isolation on the word of corrections staff, who issue tens of thousands of disciplinary “tickets” each year that result in time in the state’s numerous Special Housing Units (SHUs) or its two supermax prisons. Five out of six tickets are for nonviolent misbehavior, according to a 2012 report by the NYCLU, and disciplinary hearings are at best pro forma. The average SHU sentence is five months, but many extend for years and a few have stretched to decades. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez has stated that solitary confinement beyond two weeks is cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and often qualifies as torture.

The most dramatic reform brought about by the agreement between the state and the NYCLU is a ban on using solitary to discipline youth under the age of 18, which makes New York the largest state in the nation to prohibit the practice for juveniles in state prisons. In New York, 16 and 17 year olds accused of a felony are automatically tried and incarcerated as adults, and large numbers have ended up in the SHUs, sometimes for “their own protection.” Under the new deal, juveniles with serious disciplinary violations would be would be placed in special units with more out-of-cell time and special programming.

The agreement also bans placing pregnant women in solitary, and sets a 30-day limit on isolating people with developmental disabilities. A 2007 court settlement and a law enacted in 2011 already prohibit the use of isolated confinement for people with serious mental illness. Since the passage of the SHU Exclusion Act, several hundred people have been moved from solitary into special Residential Mental Health Units (though evidence suggests that hundreds of others remain isolated in spite of mental illness, largely due to issues around diagnosis).

“It made sense to immediately remove these vulnerable populations from extreme isolation,” Taylor Pendergrass, the NYCLU’s lead attorney in the suit, told Solitary Watch. “But in the longer term, we believe this process will bring about more comprehensive reforms that will affect many more people.” Those reforms will come, in large part, in the form of “sentencing guidelines” that designate punishments for different disciplinary infractions, and for the first time set maximum sentences in the SHU. The negotiated guidelines are covered by a confidentiality agreement until staff can be trained and the new rules put in place–a process that should take no more than nine months, Pendergrass said.

The deal also calls for New York State and the NYCLU to each choose an expert who will assess the use of isolated confinement throughout the prison system over the next two years and make further recommendations for change. The state has selected James Austin, a widely known expert on “prisoner classification” whose report to the Colorado Department of Corrections led to a reduction in the numbers of individuals held in long-term solitary in that state.

The NYCLU has chosen as its expert Eldon Vail, former head of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Vail has said publicly that solitary confinement produces “disastrous results.” He is known for conducting studies and programs in Washington’s state prisons aimed at not only reducing the use of solitary, but also tempering its effects by providing programming, therapy, and group activities for those separated from the general prison population. “He knows that treatment works better than torture,” Pendergrass said of Vail. “He is a pioneer in evidence-based approaches to prison safety and security, which do not include extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.”

The choices suggest that while the state is on board for some modest reductions in the numbers of people it holds in solitary and the length of time they spend there, the NYCLU envisions more sweeping change, which would eliminate the total isolation of solitary confinement in favor of a more rehabilitative model. In this, it is aligned with other reform efforts in the New York, including a bill introduced last month in the state legislature that aims to “fundamental transform” how prisons respond to people’s “needs and behaviors” by replacing SHUs with “Residential Rehabilitation Units.”

These more comprehensive reforms could help one group that is not affected by the current rounds of changes–those held in “administrative segregation” rather than “disciplinary segregation.” These include individuals who are classified as safety risks and sometimes spend decades in solitary confinement. Among these is William Blake, who has spent more than 26 years in isolation and whose essay on life in the SHU, “A Sentence Worse Than Death,” was published by Solitary Watch last year.

In the meantime, Pendergrass expects there will be some who feel the current deal goes too far, just as others believe it does not go far enough. He did not specify where the “pushback” is likely to come from. But in the past, correctional officers unions have generally been strong opponent of any restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.

In a statement to the New York Times, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said of the new agreement: “Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis. Any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or lives in these institutions.”

The NYCLU’s lawsuit is on hold while Austin and Vail complete their work. If the group–and its incarcerated clients–are not satisfied with the results, the litigation may resume. Meanwhile, the three named plaintiffs in the suit–Leroy Peoples, Dwayne Richardson, and Tonja Fenton–have all been released to the general population from the SHUs. “Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog,” Peoples said in 2012. The lawsuit that bears his name promises to spare many others the same suffering.

NEWS: New York Lawmakers Introduce Bill to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement

NY State Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry speaks at a press conference announcing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. Photo: Bernadette Evangelista

NY State Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry speaks at a press conference announcing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. Photo: Bernadette Evangelista

By Jean Casella. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

“I’m here in a steel coffin,” Jessica Casanova’s nephew wrote to her from an isolation cell. “I’m breathing, but I’m dead.” Her nephew, she said, “has never been the same” after spending time in solitary confinement, and his experience compelled her to speak out for the thousands held in extreme isolation in New York’s prison and jails.

Casanova was one of half a dozen speakers at a press conference held on Friday to announce the introduction of a bill in the New York State legislature that would virtually end the use of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement beyond 15 days. The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, aims to bring sweeping reform to a state where nearly 4,000 people are held in 22-to 24-hour isolation on any given day in more than 50 prisons, with at least a thousand more in solitary in local jails.

Activists from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which hosted the press conference and worked with the sponsors to draft the bill, encouraged those arriving for the mid-morning event at Greenwich Village’s Judson Memorial Church to try samples of “the Loaf.” The dense, bread-like substance, made from flour, milk, yeast, grated potatoes and carrots, is served with a side of raw cabbage as an additional form of punishment for those held in solitary confinement in New York’s prisons.

Introducing the speakers, Claire Deroche of CAIC and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture called the bill “the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in our prisons and jails.” In addition to placing a 15-day limit on solitary, the bill would create new alternatives for those deemed a longer-term safety risk to others, replacing the punishment and deprivation of New York’s “Special Housing Units” (SHUs) with a more rehabilitation-minded approach.

The bill is being sponsored in the Assembly by Jeffrion Aubry (D, Queens), called solitary confinement “an issue whose time has come.” Aubry, who also sponsored the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which limited the use of solitary on individuals with serious mental illness, said it was time to set standards for treatment of all people in prison, regardless of their offenses. “I don’t believe that having committed a crime suspends your human rights” said Aubry. “That’s not the America I want to live in. That’s not the New York State I want to live in.”

The legislation’s Senate sponsor, Bill Perkins (D, Harlem) pointed out that solitary is increasingly being seen as a “moral issue” and a “crime against humanity.” The 15-day limit set by the bill conforms to recommendations made by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, but far surpasses restrictions currently placed on solitary in any American prison system. Perkins expressed his hope that the bill would find supporters in both bodies of the legislature, and that “the governor will work with us.”

New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who has supported measures to limit solitary confinement in city jails, described seeing a friend deteriorate after being placed in isolation on Rikers Island. The friend, whom Dromm described as “the gentlest person in the world,” was also “bipolar and drug addicted,” and was placed in solitary for five months for “cigarettes and talking back.” The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would ban the use of isolation altogether on vulnerable populations, including youth, the elderly, and people with mental or physical disabilities.

Five Mualimm-ak began his statement by telling listeners: “I lived five years of my life in a space the size of your bathroom.” Mualimm-ak, who said he never committed a violent act in prison, was given stints in solitary for offenses as minor as “wasting food” by “refusing to eat an apple.” The Department of Corrections “uses the rules for the purposes of abuse,” he said. “New York State should be a leader” when it comes to prison conditions, said Mualimm-ak, who has been out of prison for two years and is working against what he calls “solitary torture.” Instead, New York state prisons and city jails practice isolated confinement at levels well above the national average.

Wrapping up the event, Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York and CAIC outlined the major provisions of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. In addition to banning special populations from solitary and setting a 15-day limit for all others, Paltrowitz said, the bill would eliminate the use of isolation to punish minor offenses, such as “having too many postage stamps or talking back to a guard.”

The bill would also create secure “residential rehabilitation units (RRUs) for those who need to be separated because they pose a genuine danger to the general population. RRUs would be “aimed at providing additional programs, therapy, and support to address underlying needs and causes of behavior, with 6 hours per day of out-of-cell programming plus one hour of out-of-cell recreation.” The legislation, said Paltrowitz, “recognizes that we need a fundamental transformation of how our public institutions address people’s needs and behaviors, both in our prisons and in our communities.”

CAIC describes itself as joining together “advocates, formerly incarcerated persons, family members of currently incarcerated people, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State.” According to its website, the group considers solitary and all forms of prison isolation to be “ineffective, counterproductive, unsafe, and inhumane,” and cites evidence showing that solitary confinement increases recidivism while failing to reduce prison violence.

The legislation, drafted over the past year, is more ambitious and far-reaching than bills on solitary that have been introduced in other states. As a result, it is unlikely to pass in anything resembling its current form–but supporters are determined to push forward. “The HALT Solitary Confinement Act implements rational humane alternatives to the costly, ineffective, and abusive use of long-term solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails,” said Sarah Kerr of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, who helped draft the legislation. “The need for reform is well-documented and the time for change is now.”

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.


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