NEWS: The Voices Drove Him to Prison. The Prison Drove Him to Suicide.

By JB Nicholas. Excerpted from The Daily Beast.

benvanzandtBenjamin Van Zandt’s hellish odyssey through New York’s criminal justice system began when the voices inside his head compelled him to light a neighbor’s house on fire.

While the occupants of the house were away, and no one was hurt, the 17-year-old schizophrenic and psychotic depressive was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in adult prison. There he was raped, extorted, forced to mule drugs, sent to solitary confinement, and deprived of the medication required to keep him stable, sane, and alive—all this according to his mother and father, who regularly visited him, prison records, and court filings obtained by The Daily Beast.

Benjamin’s journey ended, four years later, at New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility, when he killed himself after the prison’s “beat-up squad” of guards tortured a mentally ill prisoner in front of him, leaving Ben to fear for his own life. Fishkill’s beat-up squads are accused of killing at least one inmate, whose death is being investigated by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

But no one has been held remotely responsible for the death of Benjamin Van Zandt—until now.

Read the full article at The Daily Beast.

NEWS: Advocates Rally in Harlem to Call on Cuomo to End Solitary Confinement

By Dartunorro Clark. Reprinted from dnainfo.com.

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HARLEM — Victor Pate gave up and started talking to himself.

Pate, 64, did a three-month stint in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day during the late 1980s when he was imprisoned in Sing Sing.

Pate, a Harlem resident, said the loss of human contact during that time drove him to it.

“That short period of time I was isolated put me in a state of mind I’ve never been before,” he said. “I found myself hallucinating, sort of like I was in a surreal world.”

Pate, along with a dozen other advocates rallied and had people sign petitions Tuesday in Marcus Garvey Park to raise awareness about solitary confinement and called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reform the practice in the state.

The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) organized the rally and uses it’s 4,000-member network to host similar rallies across the state.

The organizers also used virtual reality goggles to take passersby into a solitary 6-by-9 feet cell. The goggles displayed a gloomy room with a sliver of light coming into the cell from a tiny window, along with a twin-sized mattress, a toilet, sink and a makeshift desk.

“No one should be placed in a situation where they are cut off from human contact,” Pate said. “It creates a whole different person.”

A bill, the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, proposed to reform the practice was stalled during the 2015-2016 legislative session, advocates said.

The bill would shorten the time a prisoner can be in solitary to 15 days. The United Nations said in a recent report that any time beyond 15 days could be considered torture. It would also provide rehabilitation and counseling services.

The bill has yet to come to a vote in either the state Senate or the Assembly.

Advocates are hoping the bill gets a vote and passes, but also stressed that Cuomo could use executive authority to halt the practice at state prisons.

“We’re going to keep doing this until we get the bill passed and signed by the governor,” said Jared Chausow, one of the organizers.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NEWS: Widespread Brutality and Solitary Confinement Followed New York Prison Escape, Report Finds

By Julia Hettiger. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

One year after the high-profile escape of two men from Clinton Correctional Facility, the Correctional Association of New York, the state’s oldest prison reform organization, has released a scathing new report on the brutality that followed the escape. Voices from Clinton documents cruelty often rising to the level of torture, and its subsequent cover up, in one of New York’s largest maximum security prisons.

In June 2015, two men serving murder sentences, Richard W. Matt and David Sweat, escaped from Clinton, in Dannemora, New York, after six months of planning. Matt was eventually killed, and Sweat was shot and captured and soon placed in long-term solitary confinement. According to a report made by the Department of Corrections Inspector General, the escape was possible because of security lapses by staff (and in one case, direct assistance). Some measures have been put into place to correct and enforce these procedures.

However, Inspector General’s the official report did little to document the abuse that has been visited upon those imprisoned at Clinton at the hands of the corrections officers, according to the Correctional Association. Voices from Clinton depicts firsthand accounts from the victims.

According to the report, conditions at the already notorious prison got significantly worse after the escape, which embarrassed Clinton staff and the entire prison system. Corrections officers have abused their power by abusing the men in their charge, issuing false disciplinary tickets, and sending men into solitary confinement for minor offenses. Solitary confinement has frequently been used as a coercive tool by these officers to instill fear and wrongly punish people.

One incarcerated man reported being beaten after being mistakenly identified as someone who aided Matt and Sweat in their escape. This included corrections officers slamming him into walls, placing him in handcuffs and shackles that were too tight and repeatedly punching and kicking him. The corrections officers behind the abuse never officially issued the incarcerated man a ticket until after he filed a grievance.

“I was in a lot of pain, couldn’t sleep, and ended up urinating blood. They finally took me to see a nurse, who did some documentation of my injuries. However, I never was able to see a doctor and they did not provide me with any treatment,” the man said. He still suffers from back and wrist issues to this day.

Although several incarcerated individuals have attempted to report the abuse, many of their claims go unheard or are ignored. Reports are falsified and injuries are downplayed in order to steer away any blame or punishment against the corrections officers. Some men have been beaten to the point of severe injury, and many endure verbal and emotional abuse as well. Rehabilitation programs at Clinton have been cut from the regimen, and many of the incarcerated people at the facility are being deprived of their basic human rights.

Multiple men shared their stories about the abuse they’ve received since the escape, with many of them reporting on their experiences while in solitary confinement. The report found that over half of the people in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) are there for falsely being accused of assaulting staff members, when many of them had been on the receiving end of assaults instead. In reality, 87 percent of the assaults at Clinton involved injuries to incarcerated people, with 28 percent resulting in injuries to staff members.

“And the staff brutality is rampant. If they don’t like what you say, they just jump on you,” an incarcerated man said about the abuse he has witnessed while at Clinton, including corrections officers placing plastic bags over people’s heads and choking others with scarves. “You could die in here. And everything will just go under the rug,” he said.

Issues at Clinton likely stem in part from racial differences between prisoners and corrections officers. During the CA’s visit to Clinton, they learned that there was not one Black corrections officer working at the facility and only .05 percent of the officers were Latino. This was a shocking divide, given that 22 percent of the incarcerated people at Clinton are Latino and 53 percent are Black. According to the report, present racism fuels issues at Clinton, landing many Black and Latino men in the SHU or “keeplock”–a punishment that confines them to their cells for 23 hours a day.

An incarcerated Latino man said in the Correctional Association’s report that he faces problems with corrections officers because of a language barrier. He cannot participate in the majority of the programs available at Clinton as well, and has received abuse and punishment because of the lack of translation services.

“There are a lot of times when I do not understand what a staff member is saying to me or what they are telling me to do, and they don’t let other Spanish speaking incarcerated people help. I can’t even submit a grievance because you are not allowed to write it in Spanish,” the man said.

The report also documents problems arising for incarcerated individuals who have special needs. A few reported witnessing officers punish them with extra severity, while one man with special needs spoke about the negative effects of solitary confinement on his well-being, such as high levels of stress and depression.

According to testimony included in the report, the majority of the people who are victims of assaults by staff are issued a ticket sentencing them to solitary confinement. While in the SHU, many of have endured inhumane conditions. “COs not only mess with our food trays in the SHU, but they also deny us showers and don’t take us to recreation,” one man said. Others have also reported the unsanitary conditions of their cells, including not being given mop privileges and having bug infestations due to the lack of screens on their windows.

“Since the escape, things have long gotten worse at Clinton,” an incarcerated man is quoted in the report. Before Matt and Sweat’s escape, Clinton was already a notoriously violent facility, but the brutality has since intensified. Many men who wish to file reports or contact the media about the conditions at Clinton are immediately sentenced to long-term solitary confinement. “The brutality and the use of endless solitary are perpetually punishing people under the guise of security,” the same incarcerated man said.

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) said in a statement released to the Albany Times-Union and other media that the Correctional Association has “no hands-on experience working in or managing a correctional facility.” (The group has had full access to visit and inspect New York’s prisons for more than 170 years.) “While the department will review the report, this is not the first time that this association has leveled accusations against the agency to serve its agenda,” the statement from DOCCS continued.

The union representing corrections officers, NYSCOBA, called the accusations “baseless” and the report biased because it was based on interviews with “75 inmates who couldn’t live within the rules of society.”

In its final words, the Voices from Clinton calls for reform. The incarcerated people at Clinton have undergone serious punishment since the escape. Many are left bloodied, defeated and without the will to carry on.  “Overall, New York must reverse the downward spiral toward persistent punishment and warehousing at Clinton and across DOCCS, and envision a system where the state puts people before prisons,” the report said.

NEWS: New Yorkers Fight For Solitary Confinement Reforms: “It’s Like Being In A Coffin”

By Jack Denton. Excerpted from Gothamist.

APRIL 13 — Yesterday morning in Albany’s Legislative Office Building, Alecia Barraza’s voice cracked as she described her 21-year-old son’s mental decline and eventual suicide during his isolation in solitary confinement at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County.

“We live with this tragedy every day,” Barraza said of the death of her son, Benjamin Van Zandt. “Reform is needed now! Not one more family should have to endure this pain.”

A bill that would radically alter solitary confinement in New York, called the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, is gaining traction in Albany. It would create substantive alternatives to solitary confinement, place strict limitations on the use and permitted durations of confinement, and improve due process protections for prisoners who face solitary.

Yesterday, The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (CAIC) brought over 200 people from all over the state to Albany to rally and lobby the legislature to pass the HALT act, which now has 59 co-sponsors in the state legislature. Advocates also built a model solitary confinement cell in the legislative chambers that was covered with poetry written by inmates currently serving time in solitary confinement.

The push for solitary reform is part of a growing public discomfort — especially in New York — with the way our criminal justice system currently operates, especially its over-reliance on solitary confinement.

Despite the approval of a New York State settlement that requires incremental changes, the New York State prison system’s use of solitary confinement is one of the most egregious in the nation. Its prisons generally hold 3,700 people in isolation, more than 7% of the entire prison population. The average rate of solitary confinement nationally is 4.4%, and as low as 2% in states such as Colorado and Washington.

These people are held a tiny cell in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for 22 to 24 hours a day, often for months or years, sometimes decades. The conditions of isolation often lead to serious psychological harm; over 40% of suicides in New York prisons in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary, despite the fact that they only represent 7% of the inmate population.

“I did two years in the solitary confinement. It really affected me. Gave me flashbacks,” said Tony Simon, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who served over 30 years in prison.

“One time I was visiting my niece’s house, and I got on the elevator, and had a terrible panic attack. I felt like I was back in solitary. It’s like being in a coffin.”

Click here to read the full article about CAIC’s Advocacy Day on Gothamist.

NEWS: NY CAIC Responds to Obama’s Announcement of Limits on Federal Solitary Confinement

On January 27, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement issued the following statement on President Obama’s executive actions to restrict solitary confinement.

President Obama has joined the growing chorus of community leaders, incarcerated individuals and their families, medical professionals, scientists, legal scholars, advocates for human rights, and everyday people in calling solitary confinement what it is – ‘an affront to our shared humanity.’ The President’s words should signal to governors, mayors, corrections officials and legislators throughout the country that it’s time to adhere to the Mandela Rules recently adopted by the United Nations and bring an end to the torture of solitary confinement in the United States.

The Executive Orders issued by the President limiting solitary confinement in Federal Prisons is a first step. Ending solitary confinement for young people and expanding treatment for people suffering from mental illness are important, but do not go nearly far enough. Solitary confinement is torture for all people and should be abolished. It is a known harmful and failed approach to discipline that resurged in this era of Mass Incarceration. It has failed to achieve its purported goals of making jails and prisons safe and instead, as the President noted, it makes us all less safe.

In New York, Legislators have the opportunity to end solitary confinement and replace it with humane and effective alternatives in response to violence and disorder in its prisons. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act (S2659/A4401) is an opportunity for New York to lead the nation into an era of respect for the human rights of all people.

Click here to view that statement as a PDF press release.

NEWS: How the Landmark Settlement Will—and Will Not—Change Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons

By Jean Casella. Excerpted from Solitary Watch.

The settlement announced Wednesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union in the Peoples v Fischer case brings broad, deep, and meaningful change to the way New York utilizes solitary confinement in its state prisons. It is a significant and hard-won victory for the plaintiffs, their attorneys, and the hundreds of advocates who have long been battling the widespread use of solitary in the state.

Media hailed the changes as an “overhaul” of solitary confinement in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, called the agreement “radical and groundbreaking,” and told the New York Times that the governor “saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to make New York prisons a model for the country.”

Everything in the settlement of the four-year lawsuit indeed represents major progress, and the limits and alternatives it prescribes will bring relief to perhaps thousands of individuals suffering in solitary in New York. If there is a downside, it is that the largely celebratory tone of the announcements and press coverage may lead all of the people in long-term solitary to mistakenly expect that their ordeals will soon be over, and the public to believe that the struggle to end prolonged prison isolation in New York has now been won.

In fact, even amidst the hard-won celebrations, there is acknowledgement that the changes the settlement brings are incremental changes. While the agreement begins to address the underlying paradigm of punishment and control through isolation that has been liberally practiced in New York for decades, it does not destroy or replace it. And even when all its provisions are implemented, thousands of people are likely to remain in solitary, some for years or decades.

Read the full article here.

NEWS: New York State Agrees to Overhaul Solitary Confinement in Prisons

By Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip. Excerpted from the New York Times.

New York has agreed to a major overhaul in the way solitary confinement is administered in the state’s prisons, with the goal of significantly reducing the number of inmates held in isolation, cutting the maximum length of stay and improving their living conditions.

The five-year, $62 million agreement, announced on Wednesday, is the result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union over the treatment of inmates in solitary confinement in the prisons. For 23 hours a day, 4,000 inmates are locked in concrete 6-by-10-foot cells, sometimes for years, with little if any human contact, no access to rehabilitative programs and a diet that can be restricted to a foul-tasting brick of bread and potatoes known at the prisons as “the loaf.”

“This is the end hopefully of an era where people are just thrown into the box for an unlimited amount of time on the whim of a corrections officer,” said Taylor Pendergrass, the civil liberties union’s lead counsel on the case. “This will not be the end of the road for solitary confinement reform, but we really think it’s a watershed moment.”

NEWS: Historic Settlement Overhauls Solitary Confinement in New York

Reprinted from the New York Civil Liberties Union

December 16, 2015 — The New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State today announced a settlement agreement that will comprehensively overhaul solitary confinement in New York State — one of the largest prison systems in the country — and provide a framework for ending the state’s overreliance on extreme isolation. The agreement will result in the end of traditional solitary confinement for more than 1,100 people — one-quarter of the current solitary population — who will either be placed in alternative units or provided with less isolating, more rehabilitative conditions. The settlement is expected to reduce the solitary population even further by eliminating solitary confinement as punishment for all minor violations and limiting the duration of most solitary sentences, and it will abolish several of solitary’s most dehumanizing features altogether.

“New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time. Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State.”

The agreement comes as a result of the 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer, brought by the NYCLU with pro bono co-counsel Morrison & Foerster and co-counsel Professor Alexander Reinert of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, that challenged the system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement in New York State prisons. Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of punishment used in the United States outside of the death penalty and causes severe trauma, while also being linked to higher rates of recidivism and a reduction in public safety. The NYCLU’s 2012 report “Boxed In” showed that state prisons doled out thousands of extreme isolation sentences every year, with some prisoners serving terms of years or even decades in isolation. In 2014, the NYCLU and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reached an “interim” settlement agreement under Peoples that provided immediate protections to those most vulnerable to solitary’s most devastating effects, including youth, pregnant women and developmentally disabled prisoners, and committed the NYCLU and the state to working toward a global settlement agreement. The agreement announced today is the result of nearly two years of additional negotiations since the interim agreement, and will result in sweeping, systemic changes benefitting all incarcerated individuals, corrections staff and all New Yorkers.

“Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” said lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents. “A major milestone has been accomplished today.”

“It isn’t just the people in the box who have been at risk,” said Sandy Peoples, Leroy Peoples’s wife. “These reforms are important for the families of incarcerated people.”

Under the agreement, the state commits itself to (1) reducing solitary, (2) limiting the length of solitary sentences and (3) increasing rehabilitative features in solitary and abolishing its most dehumanizing aspects. The agreement, which is expected to cost $62 million and is subject to court approval, contains the following major provisions, which must be implemented within the next three years and will be followed by a two-year monitoring period:

  • Removes more than 1,100 people from traditional solitary conditions and either moves them into rehabilitative units with common spaces and group programming or moves them to into other less isolating disciplinary units. These changes are designed to impact people trapped in solitary with the longest sentences, people with developmental disabilities, people in need of drug therapy or more comprehensive behavioral therapy, juveniles, and people who would otherwise be released directly from solitary to the street.
  • Restricts the circumstances that solitary can be imposed as punishment. Nearly half (42) of the 87 rule violations punishable by solitary – including drug use and drug possession — no longer allow solitary sentences for one-time violations. Petty violations — 23 out of the 87 violations – are no longer eligible for solitary confinement sanctions at all.
  • Requires de-escalation training of over 20,000 of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision personnel on how to diffuse situations before solitary becomes a consideration.
  • Imposes a maximum sentence for solitary confinement of three months for all but a handful of first-time violations such as assault and escape, and a maximum sentence of 30 days for almost all first-time non-violent violations.
  • Grants all people in solitary automatic early release for good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming.
  • Provides for basic human needs for people in solitary, including access to telephone calls, reading materials and a shower curtain in shared cells, and abolishes the use of serving inedible food (the “loaf”) as a form of starvation punishment.
  • Commits the state to spend approximately $62 million on implementing terms of the settlement, including the conversion of traditional solitary blocks into more rehabilitative spaces with group dayrooms and outdoor space.
  • Establishes a robust monitoring regime to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement, including quarterly reporting to the public.

“Today is a watershed moment, as New York moves beyond just shielding the most vulnerable and sympathetic from solitary and starts to address more difficult and fundamental issues that have allowed such a devastating and unsafe practice to become so common for so long,” said Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney. “By addressing the use of solitary at nearly every level, this agreement puts New York on the path toward a system that embraces the reality that respecting human dignity and improving public safety are not in conflict, but are mutually reinforcing goals.”

A federal study released in December 2014 found that states that reformed solitary confinement found no decrease in safety inside the prisons, and that in some state prison systems, like Colorado, safety improved as fewer prisoners were subjected to solitary.

“For more than 100 years, it has been shown that extreme isolation causes serious harm while accomplishing little if any of the goals of a rational corrections system,” said co-counsel Alex Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “This settlement puts New York on the right path, one joined by an increasing number of states and localities.”

“To their credit, New York officials recognized the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system and came to the table with an appetite for reform,” said Jennifer K. Brown, co-counsel and Senior pro bono counsel, Morrison & Foerster. “Our firm was honored to play a part in the negotiations that led to this historic pact and will be vigilant with our co-counsel in monitoring the implementation and impact of this agreement. We commend New York corrections leaders for tackling this issue head-on and committing to the hard and complicated work necessary to reduce solitary – work that will improve everyone’s safety, in and outside prison, in the long run.”

“I’m thankful that the problems of solitary confinement are finally being taken so seriously,” said plaintiff Dewayne Richardson, who was sentenced to 1,095 days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents. “And with these changes in place, I hope that people like me will now have a better chance at being productive citizens after we leave the system.”

“For the months that I was locked up and forgotten about in solitary, I have been working with the NYCLU to bring about today’s reforms,” said plaintiff Tonja Fenton, who was given three solitary sentences for non-violent conduct. “I hope that today New York can finally begin to find its way out of the box.”

In addition to Pendergrass, NYCLU staff who have worked on the case include Christopher Dunn and Philip Desgranges.

The Morrison & Foerster team, led by David Fioccola and Jennifer Brown, also includes Kayvan Sadeghi, Daniel Matza-Brown and Adam Hunt.

NEWS: State Inmates in Solitary Confinement Surpass 4,000 Despite Vows to Limit Use

By Keri Blakinger and Reuven Blau. Reprinted from the New York Daily News.

nysolitaryThe number of state prison inmates tossed in solitary confinement has surpassed 4,000 for the first time in three years, despite vows by officials to limit its use, the Daily News has learned.

And prison advocates say there’s been an increase since this summer, due in large part to backlash from correction officers after the June escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional Facility upstate.

In response to a federal lawsuit, state correction officials announced in February that they would reduce the use of solitary confinement for pregnant inmates and prisoners under 18. The reforms also included limiting the punishment to 30 days for convicts with developmental disabilities.

Initially, there was a sharp drop.

The number of inmates in solitary confinement fell to 6.8% of the total inmate population on June 1, state records show. The 3,621 prisoners in solitary that month marked the lowest total in at least the last three years.

But it suddenly spiked by almost 300 inmates in July, bringing the percentage to about 7.4% of the state’s total prison population. By September, the number of inmates in solitary surpassed 4,000 for the first time since 2012, records show. On Tuesday, there were 4,029 inmates in solitary, documents show.

“What’s so disturbing is that it has taken years to get some small change … and that got swept away in three months,” said Jack Beck of the Correctional Association, one of the nation’s oldest inmate advocacy organizations.

Prisoner advocates contend the 23-hour-per-day punishment is too harsh and inflicts long-term emotional and physical damage — especially to teens.

Correction officers from across the state were pulled off their regular posts and used in the hunt for fugitives Matt and Sweat. Authorities noticed they were missing on June 6. Matt was shot and killed by state police on June 26; Sweat was wounded and arrested on June 28.

“The escape became very personal,” Beck said.

“We were getting phone calls all the time about people expressing problems,” he added, referring to prisoner pleas for help.

Tom Mailey, a prison spokesman, said there’s been a 23% decline in the number of inmates placed in solitary from 2012 until the first quarter of 2015. The number of solitary “dispositions” and the net length of time served in isolation cells have gone down over that time period.

Department officials say the solitary confinement figures don’t include the context of increased assaults on correction officers. And they say the prison population now includes fewer non-violent prisoners and more dangerous convicts. Those prisoners are more likely to attack officers or other convicts and get sent to solitary.

NEWS: Model Cell Teaches New Yorkers About Solitary Confinement and the HALT Act

Read the article on Fusion.

Watch the video here:

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