NEWS: Roundup of National News on Solitary Confinement, March 2014

Compiled by Fran Geteles-Shapiro.

March 27

A man who suffers from extreme physical disabilities, and lives with constant pain, is suing the state in federal court, asserting that he has suffered medical neglect and physical abuse while held in New York’s prison system.  His attorney says that, once he began complaining about the lack of accommodation, he was placed in solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) in retaliation.

March 24

Prisons have buoyed southern Colorado economically, providing thousands of jobs with retirement and health benefits. But stresses of the job create a serious downside for many of the guards.  Depression, alcoholism, domestic violence and heart attacks are common. Correctional officers’ life expectancy hovers around 59 years, compared with 77 for the U.S. population overall and the suicide rate among prison guards is 39 percent higher than the average for other occupations.  At Florence ADX, at least nine federal guards have committed suicide since 1994.

March 23

A mentally ill, homeless former Marine arrested for trespassing because he was sleeping in the roof landing of a New York City public housing project during one of the coldest recorded winters in city history, died in a Rikers Island jail cell. The cell temperature was reportedly at least 100 degrees. He was in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for individuals with mental illnesses and should have been checked every 15 minutes, but his body was found after four hours.

March 21

The CA group, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity, is asking human rights advocates to submit comments to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation opposing the implementation of the prison system’s Security Threat Group/Step Down Program (STG/SDP) because policies will perpetuate California’s over use of torturous isolation.   Their analysis points to the following: lifetime solitary confinement continues; solitary is still used for people who have committed no violent acts; there is no due process or independent oversight; decisions about SHU placement are discretionary and arbitrary; and, Coercive Debriefing/Confidential Informants continue to be used to keep men in solitary.

March 20

Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – three Americans who endured many months of solitary confinement in Iran after being captured hiking near the Iraq-Iran border – have released a memoir detailing their experiences, “A Sliver of Light”.  When interviewed, they spoke out not only about their own experiences but the plight faced by the tens of thousands of individuals held in solitary confinement across the United States. /

March 19

The Chair of the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee warned Texas’s Department of Criminal Justice officials that, if the agency does not rein in the use of solitary — known as administrative segregation — a federal judge may end up overseeing reforms as the result of a civil rights suit. He noted that the policy of putting mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, which courts in other states have found to be unconstitutional, would be difficult.  Although the number of people in solitary has dropped by 25 percent since 2006, 7,136 individuals are there currently.   About 1/3 of them have a serious mental illness or have documented mental retardation.

In Guantanamo last April, the U.S. military put nearly all the men on hunger strike under lockdown — i.e. each person alone inside a single cell — in a divide-and-conquer strategy.  As of this week, authorities there are saying that roughly 70 percent of the 154 detained individuals were being held in communal, medium-security detention.  The prison required the men to eat regularly – and to stop calling themselves hunger strikers – as a condition of release from lockdown.

 March 17

The latest development in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in September 2012, a plan to improve conditions at juvenile justice facilities in Illinois was filed jointly by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) and the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).   If approved, conditions will be improved in several areas: education, mental health treatment, idleness reduction, solitary confinement, continued incarceration solely for lack of a community placement, and protection for LGBT youth.

New legislation to revise and reform solitary confinement conditions and procedures in California’s prisons was introduced in the legislature. The legislation is designed to achieve four goals: increased oversight and accountability; integrity and fair treatment in detention decisions; humane conditions in the SHUs; and, positive incentives for people in prison to change their lives.

In a letter to the Denver Post, an attorney with CO’s ACLU challenges their editorial saying that, while eliminating the practice of warehousing mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement should be a policy priority, this job should be left to the prison professionals and need not be dealt with in legislation.  The attorney notes that binding legislation with clear definitions is critical to ensure that future leadership does not reverse the new reforms that have been implemented by current prison authorities because this would drive CO back to an earlier period of severely abusive policies.

 March 14

Funding has been approved for activation of ADX-USP Thomson, a new federal supermax prison which is to hold incarcerated individuals with various security designations, including SMU and ADX. Although the federal Bureau of Prisons has been claiming that it is working to reduce the number of people it holds in solitary confinement, Thomson will substantially increase the federal government’s capacity to hold people in extreme isolation. Backing the opening of ADX/USP Thomson is the same Sen. Dick Durbin (D, IL) who has built a reputation challenging the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. He says his purpose is to help alleviate overcrowding and that all prisoners held there will be treated appropriately and humanely.

March 13/14

On these dates, for the first time since 2006, the UN held hearings on the US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects basic human rights, such as freedom from torture and abuse, freedom from discrimination, and others rights.  Solitary confinement was one of the issues to be considered. A shadow report from the ACLU suggested issues to be addressed. After stressing the need for accurate statistics and information about the measures being taken to limit or regulate the imposition of solitary confinement, the report recommends greater transparency about policies and practices, banning prolonged solitary, banning the use of solitary for children and persons with mental disabilities, and compilation of data on the effect of isolation.  /

March 13

The U.S. Justice Department has asked a federal court to stop the Ohio Department of Youth Services from using solitary confinement to punish boys with mental-health issues, arguing that keeping the boys in solitary confinement violates their constitutional rights and deprives them of education, exercise, programming and mental-health care.  They note also that many of the boys were on suicide watch, had suicidal thoughts or hurt themselves while in seclusion and that the way in which Ohio uses seclusion to punish youth with mental health needs victimizes one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.  But the state is opposing the limitation effort on the grounds that the state is in the best position to determine how seclusion is applied and the amount of time a youth should spend in seclusion. OhioYouth Services says it secludes juveniles as a last resort and still offers treatment and programming in those cases. /

For over a decade, abused men incarcerated at Guantanamo have been denied any effective legal mechanism to challenge their treatment. But, a recent ruling of the court of appeals in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court) affirmed that the men at Guantánamo do have a right to challenge their force-feeding, and, more generally, other aspects of their detention.  As a result of this new ruling, a Yemeni man has filed a lawsuit arguing that the way the force feeding is practiced amounts to torture designed to cause gratuitous pain in an effort to silence the prisoners. In response, government officials have invoked the need to protect the health and safety of detainees.  /

March 12

Institutionalized Cruelty, a film by James Tedrow, discusses the abuse of solitary confinement in the Pennsylvania prison system, as documented by investigations of the Human Rights Coalition.

March 11

Mayor Bill de Blasio named Joseph Ponte as Commissioner of the Department of Correction of NYC. Mr. Ponte has earned a national reputation as a successful reformer, most recently for the reforms he instituted in Maine that reduced the use of solitary confinement by two-thirds, and eliminated the use of disciplinary segregation for people identified as mentally ill.  He will be charged with overhauling the city’s corrections system: ending the overuse of solitary confinement, curtailing officers’ use of excessive force, and improving resources to handle the mentally ill.

The Bureau of Prisons has opened a two week period for the public to comment on the regulations governing Communication Management Units, where: detained individuals are completely banned from any physical contact with visiting family members and friends; interactions with other incarcerated people and phone calls with friends and family members are limited; no meaningful explanation is given for transfer to these units or is there any review or appeal process; many people in the CMU have neither significant disciplinary records nor any communications-related infractions so placement there is more likely the result of bias, political scapegoating, religious profiling and racism. An earlier comment period resulted in over 700 comments critical of the policies, but appropriate legal action was not taken.

The annual report of Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to the General Assembly, looks at a variety of cases of abuse in the US.  These included the four complaints by men in NYS prisons regarding the prolonged use of solitary confinement.  He concludes that each man’s right to be free from torture has been violated, and that the practice of solitary confinement in New York State violates the international obligations of the United States of America.  He urges the authorities (State and Federal) to look into the regime of administrative segregation.  He also urges them to take all measures necessary to ban the use of prolonged solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women and persons with mental disabilities.

In a document called “Medical Management of Detainees with Weight Loss,” the Guantánamo Bay prison has adopted a new forced-feeding policy that rhetorically recasts the year-long hunger strike in the remote prison camps as “long term non-religious fasting.”  And they are calling forced-feedings “involuntary enteral feedings.”

March 10

In CO, a bill, which would prohibit the state from placing individuals with serious mental illness in long term solitary confinement, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-0 vote.  Democrats and Republicans, the state Dept. of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union all supported the bill.

March 9

A suicide review team raises serious questions about the way in which the suicide of a man who was in AdSeg at Pleasant Valley State Prison in CA was handled by prison guards.  According to medical staffers, after the man was discovered hanging in his cell, guards refused to act and he remained hanging for nearly four hours before he was cut down.

March 7-present

People held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, began a hunger strike and work stoppage to call attention to the unrelenting deportations of immigrants.  They also protested abusive conditions at the facility run by the GEO group.  Advocates attribute the poor conditions to the profit-seeking element that has inserted itself into the detention system and to the government’s detention bed quota. GEO Group and ICE retaliated by putting leaders in solitary confinement, threatening to force-feed strikers and threatening to deny their asylum claims. A man who suggested they add a work stoppage to the strike was also put in solitary.  On the 11th day of the strike it was reported to have spread to another GEO run detention center in Conroe, TX.  Here too officials are reported to have retaliated against the individuals they believe to be “leaders” of the protest by isolating and shackling them. Some Tacoma politicians have raised questions about: the process for putting someone in isolation and the existence of an appeals process; regulations about detainees’ work and pay; nutrition standards; the average length of detention; and the bond process.  /  /

March 4

The budget request of the U.S. government for FY 2015 was released, proposing $8.5 billion for prisons and detention. An analysis by Solitary Watch reports that there are few specifics on how the money will be spent  in comparison to the details contained in the 2014 budget request.  That budget specifically referenced ADX/USP Thomson and its security levels, but this information is omitted from the latest request.

Amnesty International has released a videotape from Teenie Rogers whose husband, a guard at Angola prison, was killed there in April 1972.  Albert Woodfox, one of the men convicted of the murder, has been in solitary confinement for decades.  In the video Rogers pleads for his release.


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