VOICES: CAIC Members Give Powerful Testimony About Solitary in New Video Series

tyrrell muhammed, we are witnesses, the marshall project“We Are Witnesses” is a new series of short videos produced by The Marshall Project and The New Yorker, offering incredibly powerful testimony from 20 people whose lives have become enmeshed in the U.S. criminal system.

Two of the videos feature CAIC members. One is about Alicia Barraza and Doug Van Zandt, whose son Ben committed suicide in solitary. One is about Tyrrell Muhammad, who was in prison for 26 years and 11 months, including 7 years in solitary.

“You don’t even know when you lose your mind.” Tyrrell Muhammad describes the experience of solitary confinement: “Usually when we have a snowstorm, after 3 days we get cabin fever, everybody wants to get out. Solitary confinement? There’s no getting out.” He talks about how solitary caused him to start to lose his hold on reality, seeing “figurines” in the paint patterns on the wall of his cell that “look like Abraham Lincoln.”

“Then you’re saying to yourself, ‘That’s not Abraham Lincoln. Stop it. Cut it out,’” he says. “You’re battling yourself for your sanity. And it’s a hell of a battle.”

alicia barraza, We Are Witnesses, The Marshall Project“He wasn’t a bad kid. He was just a kid that was mentally ill.” Alicia Barraza and Doug Van Zandt talk about their son Ben, who despite being 17 years old and diagnosed with a mental illness, was not granted youthful offender status by the DA.

“I wanted to help him, and protect him, but then at the same time, he was already in this criminal system,” Alicia says. “He left us a note. He just said, ‘Please tell my family I love them.’”

Please watch and share!

https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses?share=tyrrell

https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses?share=alicia-doug

EVENTS: What People Locked Up For 23 Hours A Day Yearn To See

By Victoria Law. Excerpted from Gothamist

No one knows exactly how many people are held in solitary confinement throughout New York State. There’s the SHU, or Special Housing Unit, a special unit dedicated to locking people away from other. Then there’s keeplock, where people are confined to the cells in their housing units. There’s also protective custody, where people fearing or at risk for violence, are confined. In each of these, people are held in their cells for at least 23 hours each day. Often, their only human contact is with the guard that brings them their food or handcuffs them before bringing them to the shower three times each week. Some have spent years, and sometimes decades, in isolation.

While Rikers Island records the numbers of those who are isolated isolated, no data is compiled from jails throughout the state. As of September 1, 2017, state prisons held 2,886 people in SHUs. Approximately 1,000 people are held in keeplock, where people are confined to the cells in their housing units.

A group called Photo Requests from Solitary asks these people held in isolation what they would like to see. Volunteer artists then take on these requests, sometimes creating original images, sometimes digging through their existing works to find one that fits…

Some of the works provided to prisoners through Photo Requests from Solitary are currently on display at Photoville in DUMBO. On Wednesday night, Johnny Perez and other volunteers from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement greeted visitors examining the pictures.

For Perez, the issue of solitary confinement is personal. During his 13 years in prison, he spent an accumulated three years in solitary confinement, often in cells less than half the size of the 20′ x 8′ foot container. In one prison, the six-foot-tall Perez could touch the cell walls on either side whenever he stretched his arms. “That’s how big some of the cells are,” he said.

Perez was released before Photo Requests from Solitary reached New York’s prisons. But he knows the value of an image. Being in prison, he explained, means “never crossing the street for 13 years. Not seeing trees or grass. Solitary is a space so deprived of sensory stimulation. It’s easy to get psychologically boxed in.”…

Read the full article — and view the photos — at Gothamist.

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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: NY Activists Urge End to Solitary Confinement

By Alyssa Pagano. Reprinted from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

Solitary-Confinement-2-1170x878NEW YORK — Correctional officers brought Tama Bell’s mentally ill son to the brink of suicide for throwing a rag on a table, she says.

Bell’s son, Masai, was at Mid­-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y., in 2014 for a psychiatric evaluation and had gotten a job there. Inmates and officers were making fun of him when he was cleaning tables and told him to redo it, she said. He grew resentful of their prodding, threw the rag on the table and walked away.

The officers then made the other inmates leave the room. They beat him up, Bell said, and sent her son to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at Auburn Correctional in Auburn, N.Y. He stayed there, wallowing for three months. By the time he entered his second month of 23-hour-a-day solitary, he started talking about suicide, she said.

Masai has bipolar disorder with psychotic features, but he had never talked of ending his life before. That is why Bell was one of about 15 organizers who took to the streets Wednesday hoping to draw attention to this practice so they could help hasten its end across the state.

“I believe that even if you weren’t mentally ill when you went in, you will be when you get out,” Bell said.

Inmates in solitary confinement often spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells, so the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) holds rallies on the 23rd of each month to draw attention to that number, which they call state-sanctioned torture.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a small crowd gathered outside the Gun Hill Road subway station, near the intersection of White Plains Road, a major commercial stretch in the Bronx. They held large painted signs and used a megaphone to send a message to residents heading to the train during rush hour, but one they also hope will reach the state house in Albany.

As the sun set Wednesday evening, they passed around the megaphone, enthusiastically chanting and sharing their stories with whoever would listen. Their chants competed with the sound of trains intermittently clanking on the tracks overhead and the hiss of buses unloading passengers. The group passed out flyers and tried to talk to people.

 

Many of the members out that day had experienced isolated confinement themselves when they were incarcerated. The protesters said it was an unjust practice. They warned about the harm isolation can have on an inmate’s mental health.

“It was torture, ultimately,” said Craig Williams, a 33-year-old campaigner and former inmate. He spent eight and a half years in prison, three months in solitary.

“One thing I hated the most [about solitary] was only having three showers in a week.” He described how demoralizing it felt to smell his own stench and have no control over it.

Once Williams got out of solitary, he joined the Bard Prison Initiative. He read Plato’s “The Republic” and studied anthropology, giving him a more critical perspective on his situation.

“That helped me understand the whole structure and helped expose me to the conditions I was in,” he said. He thought about how to work within the system and stay out of solitary.

“It’s hard to avoid,” Williams said. “I would just dodge the officers. They pick and choose what they want to do.” They might give you a ticket if your shirt isn’t tucked in, he said, or they might untuck your shirt and then give you a ticket for not having your shirt tucked in. Williams now works as the outreach manager forPhoto Patch Foundation, an organization that connects children to their incarcerated parents through photo sharing and letter writing.

While walking to his train, Jimmy Jackson passed by the rally and took a flier. He was once incarcerated himself, back in the 1980s.

“There’s some people who have to be separated” from the rest of the prison population, Jackson said. “They can be a danger.”

Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project for the Correctional Association of New York, agrees to an extent.

“You can separate people if there’s security need, but you don’t need to isolate them,” he said.

This is largely the difference CAIC seeks to define through supporting the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act.

The protesters said they see the HALT Act as a comprehensive bill that would go a long way toward changing the system. It would limit the amount of time an inmate can spend in isolated confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days, and no more than 20 days total in a 60-day period.

The HALT Act would also provide alternatives to isolated confinement, such as therapeutic rehabilitation. It is now with a state Senate committee.

The organizers of Wednesday’s event called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Anthony J. Annucci, to support the legislation.

“They have the power and authority to turn away from the torture of solitary confinement and move towards more effective and humane approaches right now,” said Jared Chausow, campaign coalition member.

Masai was originally incarcerated for violating a felony probation, Bell said. That meant he was supposed to attend regular mental health appointments, and he did not comply. After two and a half years of incarceration, her son came home this year on Sept. 4. The prison, she said, provides minimal mental health support for this transition, and Tama continues seeking better treatment for her son.

NEWS: Solitary Confinement Is Torture, Activists Say

By Karen Rouse. Reprinted from WNYC.org.

bronx rallyMore than a dozen activists with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement – a group that opposes the practice of solitary confinement in prisons and jails – rallied on behalf of inmates on Sunday, seeking support for legislation to end a practice they say is inhumane.

Scott Paltrowitz, an associate director with the Correctional Association of New York, said solitary confinement, in which inmates are kept alone in a cell for 23 hours a day, for years – with no physical contact with other inmates, or even guards – can cause psychological damage. He said CAIC is one of many groups across the nation seeking restrictions to the practice, such as limiting solitary to no more than 15 consecutive hours at a time.

He said inmates who are violent can be separated from the general population without having to endure years of isolation.

The group plans to rally on the 23rd day of each month at different locations, to bring attention to the 23 hours a day inmates in solitary spend alone.

Click here to listen to the radio story.

NEWS: New York Activists Join Nationwide Actions Against Solitary Confinement

Several months ago, activists in California began a series of actions opposing the torture of solitary confinement, held on the 23rd of each month to mark the 23 hours a day that people spend in isolation while in solitary. This month, they were joined by others around the country. In New York City, dozens of activists from the New York Campaign for Isolated Confinement, including several survivors of solitary confinement, rallied in Union Square, spoke out against solitary confinement, and handed out information and collected petition signatures in support of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. The rally was captured in the following news report.

NEWS: With Loved Ones in Prison, Women Become Leaders in the Fight Against Solitary Confinement in New York

By Keri Blakinger. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

jessica casanovaJessica Casanova’s nephew wrote her a letter: “I”m here in a steel coffin. I’m breathing but I’m dead.” Casanova recounted, “I didn’t know what that meant so I got on a bus and I found out.”

That was in 2012, and three years later, she’s still finding out. As it turned out, Casanova’s nephew, Juan, was in solitary confinement. He was spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell and deteriorating quickly.

Juan had entered the New York State prison system as a teenager with mental health issues. Casanova said, “He suffered from antisocial personality, borderline personality, severe depression, and addiction.”

His first trip to solitary was in 2001, for allegedly smoking a joint. Although Juan was only isolation for a matter of months, Casanova said, “He’s never been the same after that.” While his first stay was brief, at this point the 33-year-old has now spent a total of about 10 years in solitary. Casanova went on to explain that her nephew now suffers from extreme bouts of depression, paranoia, and mood swings. She added, “Sometimes in the letters it seems like he might be hallucinating.”

“Seeing someone in solitary confinement,” Casanova said, “is like you’re watching them die right in front of your eyes. … I have never in my life experienced another human being being reduced to nothingness.” She added, “I just don’t understand how this can happen in the world.”

Although her nephew’s experience opened Casanova’s eyes, the 43-years-old East Harlem resident is not the only one coming to such realizations. Nationwide, there are at least 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day – and most have families who watch them suffer.

Leah Gitter, a retired New York City schoolteacher, is another of those suffering relatives. Her godson, Robert, has spent time in solitary both in Attica and Green Haven, maximum security prisons in New York State.

Gitter said that, during the time Robert was in solitary confinement, “I saw him becoming more unstable and more isolated and sicker. It was like he was withdrawing.” She added, “You get into this mindset where you can’t function because of all that isolation and he wasn’t well to begin with.”

As is perhaps evident from Casanova’s and Gitter’s stories, despite the documented mental health impacts, individuals with existing mental health problems are routinely placed in solitary confinement, a practice which may be counterproductive to any perceived public safety goals. Gitter observed, “I don’t know who benefits from punishing people like that.”

Robin Goods can relate. Her son, George, has spent more than a decade in solitary confinement in California. She said, “I have been visiting with my son George E. Jacobs for the past 10 years behind a glass window. When I look into his eyes I can see the progression of the effects of torture. The first year George had a distance look in his eyes. After the second year in the SHU he had a vague look in his eyes. Now after ten years in the SHU, George has a hollow empty look in his eyes.  I am witnessing my son being slowly and deliberately tortured to the point of … devastating mental health deterioration.”

Initially, her son was isolated for a small infraction – Goods said she was told that he refused to take out his shoe laces before a visit. He was sentenced to two years in solitary, but prison officials gradually extended his stay longer and longer. She said, “When he goes for the review they say it’s small infractions like refusing to eat, sharing food.” Recently, George was let out of SHU, but instead of being moved to general population, he was just placed in another type of solitary confinement know as Administrative Segregation.

Goods said, “The deterioration is so profound that it almost affects me. You feel like you want to scream at the top of your lungs, because how can you help? What can you do?” Answering her own question, she continued, “I felt so depressed and helpless and anything I tried wasn’t going anywhere. Then I became angry and decided to stand back up and fight.”

That urge to fight is something Goods has in common with Casanova and Gitter. As a result of their family connections, all three women have become crusaders against solitary confinement.

Gitter said that, knowing about the conditions of her godson’s confinement, “I was so frustrated. This was the only way I could survive — to think that I could do something, to save his life.” She became active in Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC) and “fought like hell” to get the SHU Exclusion Law passed in 2008.  The law is meant to bar most people with serious mental illness from being placed in isolation in New York’s state prisons. Gitter said, “We had press conferences and lobby days. We were relentless, even though it took eight years – a human rights bill [took] eight years to get passed.”

Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, said, “Leah in some way is the godmother of the movement. She’s been a force for speaking to policy makers at all different levels … She had really done so much to gather people around addressing the problem of people with mental illness in our prison system and in solitary confinement.”

While Gitter has been involved in solitary confinement activism for over a decade, Casanova got into it more recently. In 2013, she joined the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) and in 2014 spoke at the first press conference announcing the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The HALT Act, which is graduallygaining momentum in both the Senate and the House, would ban solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails to 15 days, the limit suggested by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture. Individuals requiring more secure housing over the long term would be placed in new Residential Rehabilitation Units with increased therapy and programming.

Parish said of Casanova, “She’s a tremendous advocate. When she talks about what her nephew has gone through it’s just incredibly powerful.”

Though Goods lives in New Jersey, she’s also been active in CAIC, a New York-based group. Parish said, “Robin has a leadership role within CAIC she’s one of the co-chairs of the legislative committee. She’s been part of taking trips to communities upstate to help form branches of CAIC. She’s done presentations upstate. Her son is in California so the fact that she’s working so strongly here is amazing.”

Goods said that, if there’s one thing she’s learned through her activism, it’s that if you’re a family member of someone in solitary, “You are the extended voice on the outside and you should use it as loudly as you can. There’s nothing worse going to happen than what’s already happened.”

Although Casanova, Gitter, and Goods are all important figures in the movement against solitary, they aren’t the only ones – there are wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, and children scattered throughout activist groups.

“I think,” Parish said, “one of the most important roles that family members play in the movement is reminding everyone who’s involved about the urgency of changing these policies. Because every day their family members are facing solitary or have the potential to face it, and it reminds us that this is not an abstract problem. I think that for people are in the movement it can sometimes be far away. Prisons are closed institutions. But the families constantly keep the fire burning in all of us to make the changes.”

NEWS: Legislation Limiting Solitary Confinement in New York Gains Momentum

By Marco Poggio. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

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A bill to significantly limit the use solitary confinement in New York state prison and local jails gained momentum last week, after nine Assembly members and two state senators agreed to support the legislation. The new sponsorships, secured after a day of lobbying that brought more than 120 activists to Albany from around the state, brought the total number of co-sponsors to 33 in the Assembly and 11 in the Senate.

Citing the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, who condemned long-term solitary confinement as torture, advocates convinced the legislators of the urgency of a sweeping bill called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the maximum time of isolation to 15 consecutive days, and a maximum of 20 days over any 60-day period.

The bill would also completely ban the use of isolation on individuals with mental illness, as well as youth, seniors, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and members of the LGBTQI community—groups that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of solitary, or prone to abuse while in solitary, or both

“The practice of solitary confinement is subject to widespread abuse,” Méndez said in a videotaped statement, which was played at an educational event held on the morning of April 22 in the Legislative Office Building. “It leads to the violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to personal, physical or mental integrity, and may constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment, and even torture.”

Scientific evidence shows that people who are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day suffer severe irreversible psychological damage, Méndez said, adding that long-term solitary confinement “must be absolutely prohibited.”

Studies have shown that people held in isolation often develop acute forms of paranoia and psychosis that cause them to mutilate themselves, and in many cases, to commit suicide.

Figures obtained by the Correctional Association of New York from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) indicate that the rate of suicide in New York state prison is 59 percent higher than the national average for incarcerated persons.

Among the individuals who took his own life while being held in isolation was Benjamin Van Zandt, whose mother, Alicia Barraza, also spoke at the morning event.

Van Zandt was arrested and charged for arson when he was 17. Despite being diagnosed with mental health problems, he was placed in solitary confinement multiple times over the course of three years. He reportedly also endured repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hand of other incarcerated with him at Fishkill Correctional Center. At some point during his downward path through despair and acute depression, Van Zandt decided his life wasn’t worth living, and hanged himself in his cell at the age of 21.

Since her son’s death, Barazza has become a passionate advocate for the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. “There is absolutely no reason that another family should have to endure what we went through,” Barazza said

“I think we should put an end to the number of suicides that come from solitary confinement” said Selestina Martinez, a social worker born and raised in the Bronx who joined in the lobbying, which was organized by an advocacy group called the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).

Martinez’s cousin, who has completed 23 years of a 25-year sentence, spent large portions of his time in solitary confinement. Now that he only has two years left before he will be released, Martinez said, her cousin is frightened to come home because he doesn’t know how he will be able re-enter society after a long time spent in isolation.

“It’s kinda like throwing somebody into the water and expecting them to swim when they don’t know how,” she said, referring to people who have done time in solitary confinement.

“I’ve Known Men Who Lost Their Minds”

Across the country, at least 80,000 people are being held in some form of isolated confinement, locked down in one- or two-person cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. In New York State prisons, the number is about 4,500 at any given time. Each year in the state of New York, the Corrections Department sentences over 14,000 people to terms in so-called Special Housing Units (SHUs).

About 8,000 of those sentences, roughly 57 percent, result in three or more months in the ‘box,’ as solitary confinement is commonly called by those who experience it. About 3,900 of the sentences, nearly 28 percent of the total, send people to isolation for six months or longer. Some individuals are kept in “disciplinary segregation” for years at the time, while “administrative segregation” can last for decades.

“I’ve known men who lost their minds,” said Tyrrell Muhammad, who spent seven consecutive years in solitary confinement, and spoke of his experiences at the morning event. During each day in isolation, Muhammad said, he had to fight hard to stay sane.

A few week after entering solitary confinement, Muhammad began suffering the consequences of extreme isolation and idleness.

First, he began having hallucinations while staring for hours at the flaking paint on the walls, which he saw transforming into the faces of famous people. One time, Muhammad said, he recognized Dr. Jay, a basketball star who played during the 1970s. Another time, he saw the face of Abraham Lincoln.

“This is how you could tell you’re slipping,” Muhammad told Solitary Watch. After more time spent in complete isolation, Muhammad said, he often would not realize he had been talking to himself loudly for hours until a guard outside his cell told him to be quiet.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, only in a small number of cases people are put in isolation because of violent behaviour inside prisons or jails. Most of the time, they end up in solitary confinement for minor actions that are considered to be in violations of prison regulations, for example having too many postal stamps, occupying the wrong side of the cell, or talking back to a correctional officer.

Pushing Legislation to Limit Solitary Confinement

The April 22nd morning press event featured sponsors of three bills to limit solitary confinement. A bill introduced by Assembly Correction Committee chair Daniel J. O’Donnell would ban solitary for youth and people with developmental disabilities, as well as individuals with mental illness, and states that solitary confinement sanctions be imposed as a measure of last resort, and for the minimum period necessary. . A bill already passed by the Assembly, after being introduced by Nily Rozic, bans solitary for pregnant women.

The lead sponsors of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act also spoke at the event. Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and State Senator William Perkins originally introduced the bill in January 2014.

“We have a human rights crisis here in New York State. The cost of solitary confinement as a state and a society are immeasurable,” said Perkins, a democrat from Harlem. “The encouraging news is that legislators, advocates, and the public have finally come together.”

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act does more than simply reducing the use of solitary confinement. It also seeks to create alternative Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU), which would substitute the isolation and deprivation of the SHU with treatment and programs of rehabilitation that would help incarcerated people prepare for their transition back into the general population and the outside world.

On April 22, advocates for the bill met with legislators and staffs throughout the day. Organized in teams of four or five, activists spelled out the key features of the bill to Assembly members and state senators, some of whom were not yet familiar with the issue of solitary confinement. In some of the meetings, activists directly affected by incarceration system were able to share their life stories with the legislators.

Tama Bell, the mother of a 23-year old man who’s currently in jail, told Assembly Member David Weprin her son ended up in solitary confinement despite a long history of mental illness and after being diagnosed with a serious form of bipolar disorder.

After only month locked up in a cell alone the size of an elevator, Bell said, her son began talking about suicide. She reached out to the elected officials in her district, and contacted both the state’s Department of Correction and the Office of Mental Health to let the officials know about her son’s situation. Finally, her son’s solitary confinement sentenced was reduced from 18 months to three.

“I can’t even imagine him making it through beyond the three months,” Bell said, adding how lucky she feels that his son is still alive. Were the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in place, her son would have never walked inside an isolation cell in the first place.

While her intervention helped improving the condition of her son, there are large numbers of less fortunate children whose families have no means to get them out of isolation.

Weprin was among the first Assembly members last week to add his name to the list of those who sponsor the legislation. By the end of day last Wednesday, six more Assembly members had decided to co-sponsor the bill, a sign that advocates have been effective in getting the attention of the elected officials on the issue of solitary confinement.

“So many people did so much to make this day a success,” Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York and an organizer of day’s events.

“I feel honored, inspired, blessed, humbled and excited to be part of a movement that is challenging such horrific practices with such fierce advocacy, passion, dedication, energy, and love,” Paltrowitz wrote in an email to the activists who took part in the lobby day.

The dozens of activists coming from all across the state, organized by the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), included a heterogeneous mix of people from different walks of life. While individuals cited different motives for taking part in the day, all of them share the belief that solitary confinement is inhumane and degrading.

“I’m here just because I don’t want to live in a country where we treat anybody like this,” said Shirley Ripullone, who lives in Columbia County.

“As an American who believes in the stated values of our country, I hate to see us acting [in a way] that if it were happening anywhere else we would be wary and self-righteous about it,” said Kenneth Stahl, a man who had no direct experience with solitary confinement but decided to mobilize in favor of the bill out of his own moral principles.

Social workers, lawyers, members of religious communities, and people from the general public were joined by formerly incarcerated people and families of currently incarcerated people in an action that defied demographics.

A Long Road Ahead

Although lobbying efforts in Albany were successful, there are still significant obstacles that sweeping legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Bill will have to overcome before it will be able to make it to the floor of the Assembly, much less the Republican-controlled Senate.

Partisan divisions are only part of the problem. Geographic and demographic splits also play a role in opinions on solitary confinement. As illustrated in an infographic distributed by CAIC, African Americans are even more over-represented in solitary confinement than they are in the prison population. In addition, while a majority of incarcerated people come from New York City, most prisons are located upstate, and most prison staff are white.

Political support for solitary confinement is still large around the state, especially in those counties where the local economy relies heavily of the business of correction facilities, and where correctional officer unions have powerful connections inside the state legislature.

Even in a liberal stronghold like New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to fix a correction system plagued by violence and dysfunction, reforms have taken place amid a climate of caution and sometimes skepticism.

“I don’t think it is cruel and unusual,” said Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte in regard of solitary confinement, during a hearing at City Council last month.

But people who have done time in “the bing,” the nickname for the Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit, see it differently.

“Once you go into solitary confinement, all privileges are gone,” said Hallie West, who has twice been in solitary confinement at Rikers. “Privileges mean: telephone calls, food commissary, your books, your music and all that extra stuff. They take it away from you, and they put it on the side. You might get your clothing if you’re lucky.”

Since she first ended up in a SHU on Rikers Island in 1993, West said, things have gotten worse. Today, she said, people held in solitary confinement are never allowed out of the cell for any reason. Visits are heavily restricted, and inmates are denied the chance to make phone calls for several days at the time.

In March, De Blasio and Ponte co-announced a 14-point anti-violence agenda that includes a set limit of 60 days as the maximum amount of time that a person can spend in solitary confinement within any six-month period, and a ban on isolation for all inmates who are 21 or younger.

Despite being a step forward towards a more humane approach to incarceration, it is not yet clear how significantly the agenda will actually reduce the use of solitary confinement.

For opponents of solitary across the state, April 22 gave cause for encouragement, but also served as a reminder of the long road ahead.

“Many don’t believe as we believe, and it’s our job to convince them that they’re wrong,” said Jeffrion Aubry, the democrat from Queens who first introduced the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in the Assembly.

“They may not agree with us at the moment,” Aubry said about those legislators that are unconvinced about the bill. “But information and right ultimately win out.”

NEWS: New York City Officials and Advocates Push for Change to the “Culture of Brutality” on Rikers Island

By Savannah Crowley. Excerpted from Solitary Watch.

Update, 8/22/14:  On Thursday, August 21, the New York City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens that would require corrections officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Presenting this information to the New York City Board of Corrections would create increased transparency and oversight concerning the jail’s use of punitive segregation. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Mayor de Blasio, who has said he supports the bill.

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New York City advocates and public officials gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to demand an end to the “culture of brutality” emerging from New York City’s Rikers Island, the second biggest jail in the country. The demand followed recent reports released by the United States Department of Justice and the New York City Board of Corrections, as well as months of investigative reporting by the New York Times, exposing brutality, violence, and excessive use of solitary confinement by officers specifically against mentally ill and teenage inmates. One previously incarcerated advocate that spoke at the event described Rikers as “worse than Dante’s Inferno.”

At the press conference, organized by the New York City Jails Action Coalition, speakers expressed support for legislation introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens that would bring about much needed transparency and oversight to Rikers. The bill will be voted on this Thursday in the City Council. Speaking at the event, Dromm recounted his tour of Rikers saying, “I saw the horrible conditions inside of solitary people have to endure—a very small cell, the smell of urine, graffiti, a bed that was rusted, a mattress that had mildew on it, a blower of heat directly on top of the bed blowing down.” Strong criticism of Rikers Island has surfaced most recently after a series of exposes in the New York Times covering the staggering rise in violence at Rikers since 2009.

The Times managed to uncover an internal report conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that documented, during an 11 month period, 129 cases of violence by corrections officers towards prisoners yielding injuries so serious they could not be treated at the jail’s clinic. Individuals incarcerated at Rikers suffered fractured jaws and eye sockets, wounds needing stitches, and severe back and head trauma. The report found that 77 percent of those seriously injured had a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet in not one of the 129 cases was a corrections officer prosecuted.  Over half of the 80 prisoners interviewed by health department staff admitted to being intimidated by officers during their treatment, making it easier for staff to cover up the violent episodes.

According to the same article, about 4,000 out of 11,000 people held at Rikers have a mental illness. This number is about 40 percent of the jail population, a 20 percent increase from eight years ago. Few corrections officers have received any in-depth training on how to deal with individuals with mental illness.

Criticism of policies at Rikers Island continued to rise after August 4, when the United States Department of Justice unveiled a secret three-year investigation of Rikers conducted from 2011 to 2013. The investigation concluded that there is a “deep seated culture of violence” at the jail and that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has violated the civil rights of adolescent males ages 16 to 18, by subjecting them to and not protecting them from excessive force and violence. For example, the report said, “In FY [Fiscal Year] 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents… (resulting in 1,057 injuries).”Teenagers at Rikers suffered extreme violence by officers including “…broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.”

Read more here.

NEWS: Abuses at Rikers Island: Officials and Advocates Call for End to Solitary Confinement and Officer Violence

By Annie Wu. Excerpted from The Epoch Times.

For Johnny Perez, the horrors of being placed in solitary confinement still remain fresh in his memory. More than 15 years ago, when Perez was a young teen, he was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island.

“It’s second by second, the attack on your soul,” Perez said, who now works as an advocate for the mentally ill at the Urban Justice Center.

Perez recalls having suicidal thoughts and crying so much that “you cry even when you run out of tears.” In addition, corrections officers often turned a blind eye to the violence that occurred among inmates.

“The abuses came out of pure neglect,” Perez said.

Perez was among the group of advocates and elected officials gathered at City Hall on Monday to call for an end to correction officers’ violence toward inmates and the excessive use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail facility.

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