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 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: 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.”

VOICES: End the Torture of Solitary Confinement with the HALT Act

By Five Mualimm-ak. Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union.

I am a survivor of 2,054 days of torture. And like many people who have endured such abuse, I suffer lasting psychological effects.

I often experience memory loss and flashbacks. It’s sometimes hard for me to focus. I get upset and angry easily, and have abnormal reactions to ordinary things. I find it difficult to sleep. I do not like being touched, and have difficulty connecting to people. I suffer from depression.

The torture I endured did not take place in some foreign land, or at the hands of a vicious psychopath. It happened right here in New York state, amidst communities of decent, law-abiding people. My torture consisted of five years in solitary confinement in New York’s prisons.

southport bigOn any given day in the United States, more than 80,000 men, women, and children are in some form of extreme isolation in our nation’s prisons. In New York, the number is about 4,500. These individuals spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in bare, sometimes windowless cells, without human contact, work, treatment, or programming. They are fed through a slot in the door, and given at most one hour a day to exercise by themselves in a fenced or walled dog run.

Most of the people in solitary confinement in New York are there for nonviolent misbehavior. Disobeying an order or speaking back to a correction officer, testing positive for marijuana use, or having too many postage stamps — all of these rule violations can land a person in “the box” for months, and the months can add up to years. For me, the infractions included having too many pencils, refusing to eat an apple, and failing to sleep in a broken bunk.

Even when it is meted out in response to more serious behavior, solitary confinement is not the answer. A recent study in Texas confirms that solitary does not reduce violence in prisons. An earlier study in Washington state showed that being released directly from solitary to the streets — as 2,000 people are in New York every year — increases the likelihood that people will land back in prison.

Today, there is a growing consensus that solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive. But prison systems are slow to change. Recent reforms have reduced the number of people with mental illness held in solitary in New York, and limited the use of isolation on children under 18, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. But the numbers of people removed from solitary confinement are small, and thousands still remain.

For the people who still endure this torture on a daily basis in New York, the best hope lies in legislation introduced last year in both the Assembly and Senate. The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (A. 4401/S. 2659). This legislation would ban the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 days, which is the limit recommended by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and ban solitary altogether for the most vulnerable groups. It would also replace long-term isolation with intensive treatment and programming in special secure rehabilitation units. And it would provide corrections officers and other prison staff the tools and training they need to do their jobs safely.

For me and other survivors of long-term solitary, it may be too late to avoid the permanent scars of psychological torture. But for thousands of other people in prison — people for whom we, as New Yorkers, are responsible — the time for change is now. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act is gaining momentum in the Legislature, and last week more than 100 people converged from around the state to lobby for the bill. HALT provides New York’s legislators, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the opportunity to make our state a leader in banning solitary confinement and saying no to torture in our own backyards.

Five Mualimm-ak spent 12 years in New York state prisons for illegal weapons possession. He is founder of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign and an active member of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

NEWS: Hundreds Lobby Against Solitary Confinement

By Keri Blakinger. Reprinted from examiner.com.

Photo: Stacy Burnett

Photo: Stacy Burnett

On Monday, hundreds of activists gathered outside the Capitol in Albany to lobby in favor of a bill that would make major changes to the way that solitary confinement is used in New York’s prisons and jails.

The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act seeks to address the underlying behavioral problems that lead inmates to be placed in solitary confinement by offering increased treatment options. For inmates sentenced to more than 15 days in solitary, HALT would ensure that they receive six hours of out-of-cell programming and treatment per day in new units called residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs. Certain vulnerable populations — such as pregnant women, inmates under 21, elderly inmates, mentally or physically handicapped inmates, and LGBTQI inmates — would be excluded from being in solitary confinement for even one day. Instead, such populations would be referred directly to RRUs.

As Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement reports, there are approximately 4,000 men, women, and children in solitary confinement in New York’s state prisons and many more in its city and county jails. Currently, Solitary Watch reports that 5 out of 6 people in solitary confinement in New York are there for non-violent rules violations, including such minor offenses as having too many stamps or talking back to an officer. Solitary confinement entails spending 22 to 24 hours per day locked in a cell approximately the size of an elevator.

Solitary confinement survivor Five Mualimm-ak told a local news channel about the torturous conditions, saying, “We’re talking about human isolation. We’re talking about sensory deprivation. We’re talking about our God-given rights.”

One of the speakers at the rally was renowned academic and activist Cornel West. He spoke passionately about issues of race in regards to mass incarceration, saying, “Everybody knows 12 percent of those on the chocolate side, 12 percent of those on the vanilla side of flying high in the friendly skies every week taking drugs, but 65 percent of the convicteds [on drug offenses] are chocolate. That just lets us know that the legacy of white supremacy is still operating in America.”

NEWS: Lawmakers, Advocates, and Survivors of Solitary Confinement Introduce Sweeping Reforms to Use of Isolation in New York’s Prisons and Jails

Press Release from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

CAIC Logo (250px)Albany, May 5, 2014 — At a mid-morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building in Albany, leading legislators joined advocates, people who had experienced solitary confinement, and family members of those currently in solitary to promote the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A08588A / S06466A).

At the same time, more than 120 individuals from across the state, many of them directly affected by the widespread use of solitary confinement in New York, gathered for an inaugural lobby day at the State Capitol, meeting with more than 50 legislators.

After years of activism by human rights and civil liberties groups, faith communities, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and other concerned citizens, solitary confinement is currently exploding as an issue, both in the media and on public policy agendas.

Supporters are hailing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act as the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. As written, it would virtually eliminate a practice that has been increasingly denounced as both dangerous and torturous, while protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals and corrections officers.

According to Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, “New York State was a leader for the country in passing the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which keeps people with the most severe mental health needs out of solitary confinement. Now we must show the way forward again, ensuring that we provide safe, humane and effective alternatives to solitary for all people.”

“Solitary confinement makes people suffer without making our prisons safer. It is counter-productive as well as cruel,” said Senator Bill Perkins, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Solitary harms not only those who endure it, but families, communities, and corrections staff as well.”

Additional sponsors of the bill include Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Brad Hoylman, Velmanette Montgomery, N. Nick Perry, and John L. Sampson.

On any given day, about 3,800 people are in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with many more in other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s State prisons. They are held for 23 to 24 hours in cells smaller than the average parking space, alone or with one other person. More than 800 are in solitary confinement in New York City jails, along with hundreds more in local jails across the state.

New York isolates imprisoned people at levels well above the national average, and uses solitary to punish minor disciplinary violations. Five out of six sentences that result in placement in New York State’s SHUs are for non-violent conduct. Individuals are sent to the SHU on the word of prison staff, and may remain there for months, years, or even decades.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act bans extreme isolation beyond 15 days–the limit advocated by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, among others. Méndez, who is the United Nations’ main torture investigator, has found that solitary confinement as it is practiced in New York violates the U.S.’s international obligations with regard to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.

The Special Rapporteur contributed a statement which was read aloud at the press conference, concluding, “The HALT Solitary Confinement Act reflects both safe and effective prison policy and respect for human rights. It should become law in New York State and a model for change across the United States.”

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act goes well beyond the agreement that was recently reached between the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York Civil Liberties Union to limit the use of isolation on youth, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. HALT completely bars these and other vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary at all.

For those who present a serious threat to prison safety and need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of time, the legislation creates new Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs)–separate, secure units with substantial out-of-cell time, and programs and treatment aimed at addressing the underlying causes of behavioral problems.

“Isolation does not promote positive change in people; it only damages them,” said Megan Crowe-Rothstein of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “By requiring treatment and programs for people who are separated from the prison population for serious misconduct, the legislation requires Corrections to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and degradation.”

The widespread use of long-term solitary confinement has been under fire in recent years, in the face of increasing evidence that sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological damage. Supporters of the bill also say that isolated confinement fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior, and often exacerbates that behavior as people deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.

Rev. Ron Stief of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture said, “The diverse faith traditions represented by NRCAT hold in common a belief in the dignity of each human person. We share a conviction that the use of isolated confinement in U.S. prisons and jails violates basic religious values of community and restorative justice. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act provides New York with a critical opportunity to lead the way nationally in increasing access to rehabilitation and ending the torture of isolated confinement.”

Solitary confinement has never been shown to reduce prison violence. In fact, several state prisons systems, including Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement, and have seen prison violence decrease as well. In addition, individuals released from solitary confinement have higher recidivism rates. In New York each year, nearly 2,000 people are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets.

“The damage done by solitary confinement is deep and permanent,” said solitary survivor Five Mualimm-ak of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. Mualimm-ak spent five years in isolated confinement despite never having committed a violent act in prison. “Having humane alternatives will spare thousands of people the pain and suffering that extreme isolation causes–and the scars that they carry with them back into our communities.”

Also speaking at the press conference was hip-hop artist Mysonne, who spent time in solitary in New York, and Jessica Casanova, aunt of a young man currently in solitary.

Many of those represented at the press conference are members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which was instrumental in drafting the bill. CAIC unites advocates, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State with formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently incarcerated people.

On May 5, CAIC members from all corners of New York State were gathering at the State Capitol to lobby legislators to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.

“CAIC 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,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York. “Rather than inhumane and ineffective punishment, deprivation, and isolation, the HALT Act would provide people with greater support, programs, and treatment to help them thrive, and in turn make our prisons and our communities safer.”

Date/Time/ Location

Monday, May 5, 10:00 – 11:00 am 

LCA Press Room, Legislative Office Building, First Floor

198 State Street, Albany

Speakers:

Assembly Member Jeffrion L. Aubry (D, 35th District, Queens),

Assembly sponsor Senator Bill Perkins (D, 30th District, Harlem), Senate sponsor

Five Mualimm-ak, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC)

Mysonne, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, hip-hop artist

Jessica Casanova, aunt of individual currently in solitary, CAIC

Scott Paltrowitz, Correctional Association of New York, CAIC

Claire Deroche, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CAIC

All speakers will be available for interview along with additional family members of    individuals in solitary confinement, advocates, and members of the clergy, including Rev. Dr. Paul S. Johnson, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:

NEWS: Activists Come to Albany to Reform Solitary Confinement

By Paul Grondahl. Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union.

lob albanyAlbany, May 4: More than 100 prisoner advocates will lobby legislators Monday to end long-term solitary confinement in the state.

The daylong effort will include family members of inmates kept for months and years in solitary, which advocates consider cruel and unusual punishment. Studies have found the practice of extended punitive isolation can contribute to depression, mental illness and suicide attempts.

The group calls itself New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, and they’re attempting to advance a bill introduced by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly that would create alternative housing for prisoners who have been in solitary longer than 15 days — a limit recommended by a United Nations report on torture. Their legislative visits will focus on Republican lawmakers.

Currently, there are about 3,800 inmates held in solitary confinement in state prisons and hundreds more in solitary in county jails around the state each day. In state prisons, they are fed through door slots in their cells and for one hour in each 24-hour cycle, a door leading to a caged-in balcony is unlocked so they can get fresh air.

“Solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive,” said Scott Paltrowitz, associate director of the prisoner visiting project of the Correctional Association of New York. “We believe this bill creates more-effective alternatives that will make prisons and our communities safer.”

Corrections officials have long defended the use of using solitary confinement as an effective tool to control prisoners and improve safety for correction officers.

The bill would restrict how solitary confinement can be used and eliminate nonviolent conduct such as refusing to obey an order or substance abuse infractions. It would reserve solitary for physical violence, escape attempts and other serious crimes. The bill also would prohibit vulnerable prisoners such as the elderly and mentally ill from being placed in solitary confinement.

In addition, a component of the legislation would require periodic reporting from an outside entity.

“It’s very difficult now to get any information from the state on who’s in solitary and how long they’ve been there,” Paltrowitz said. “We want to bring transparency and accountability to the process.”

The lobbying day follows a February victory by prisoner advocates who were successful in winning a legal settlement that limits the state’s use of solitary confinement among inmates who are developmentally disabled, younger than 18 or pregnant.

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.

NEWS: New York Lawmakers Introduce Sweeping Reforms to Use of Solitary Confinement in Prisons and Jails

Press release from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. January 31, 10:30 am

New York — At a mid-morning press conference at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, New York legislators will join advocates, survivors of solitary confinement, and their families to announce the introduction of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A08588 / S06466).

Introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate, the pioneering bill is being hailed by supporters as the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. As written, it would virtually eliminate a practice that has been increasingly denounced as both dangerous and torturous, while protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals and corrections officers.

According to Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, “New York State was a leader for the country in passing the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which keeps people with the most severe mental health needs out of solitary confinement. Now we must show the way forward again, ensuring that we provide safe, humane and effective alternatives to solitary for all people.”

“Solitary confinement makes people suffer without making our prisons safer. It is counter-productive as well as cruel,” said Senator Bill Perkins, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Solitary harms not only those who endure it, but families, communities, and corrections staff as well.”

Currently, about 3,800 people are in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with many more in other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s State prisons on any given day, held for 23 to 24 hours a day in cells smaller than the average parking space, alone or with one other person. More than 800 are in solitary confinement in New York City jails, along with hundreds more in local jails across the state.

New York isolates imprisoned people at levels well above the national average, and uses solitary to punish minor disciplinary violations. Five out of six sentences that result in placement in New York State’s SHUs are for non-violent conduct. Individuals are sent to the SHU on the word of prison staff, and may remain there for months, years, or even decades.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act bans extreme isolation beyond 15 days–the limit advocated by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, among others. It also bars vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary at all–including youth, the elderly, pregnant women, LGBTI individuals, and those with physical or mental disabilities.

“No person should be put in solitary confinement except when they are a risk to  someone else,” said New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm. “As a major opponent of the practice, I have introduced three pieces of legislation into the City Council. I applaud the proposed state legislation that sets parameters on who can and who cannot be placed in solitary confinement and limits the amount of time they are forced to stay there.”

For those who present a serious threat to prison safety and need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of time, the legislation creates new Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs)–high-security units with substantial out-of-cell time, and programs aimed at addressing the underlying causes of behavioral problems.

“Isolation does not promote positive change in people; it only damages them,” said Jennifer J. Parish of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “By requiring treatment and programs for people who are separated from the prison population for serious misconduct, the legislation requires Corrections to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and degradation.”

“The HALT Solitary Confinement Act 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,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York. “Rather than inhumane and ineffective punishment, deprivation, and isolation, HALT would provide people with greater support, programs, and treatment to help them thrive, and in turn make our prisons and our communities safer.”

Many of those represented at the press conference are members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which was instrumental in drafting the bill. CAIC unites advocates, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State with formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently incarcerated people.

“Solitary is torture on both sides of the prison walls,” said family member Donna Sorge-Ruiz, whose fiancé is currently in solitary. “Loved ones on the outside suffer right along with those in prison, every day that they endure this pain. It must stop!”

The widespread use of long-term solitary confinement has been under fire in recent years, in the face of increasing evidence that sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological damage. Supporters of the bill also say that isolated confinement fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior, and often exacerbates that behavior as people deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.

In New York each year, nearly 2,000 people are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets, a practice that has been shown to increase recidivism rates.

“The damage done by solitary confinement is deep and permanent,” said solitary survivor Five Mualimm-ak. An activist with CAIC and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Mualimm-ak spent five years in isolated confinement despite never having committed a violent act in prison. “Having humane alternatives will spare thousands of people the pain and suffering that extreme isolation causes–and the scars that they carry with them back into our communities.”

Several state prisons systems, including Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement, and have seen prison violence decrease as well. HALT takes reform a step further by also providing alternatives for the relatively small number of individuals who need to be separated from the general population for more than a few weeks. Advocates see the bill not only as a major step toward humane and evidence-based prison policies, but also as a model for change across the country.

“Article 5 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, states that ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,’” said Laura Markle Downton of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “As people of faith, we recognize the use of solitary confinement in a prisons, jails and detention centers fundamentally violates this prohibition against torture. Now is the time for New York to lead the way in bringing an end to this human rights abuse plaguing our justice system nationally.”

“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. “The need for reform is well-documented and the time for change is now.”

PRESS CONFERENCE DETAILS:

 

Date/Time/ Location: Friday, January 31, 10:30 am

Judson Memorial Church, Meeting Room Balcony

55 Washington Square South (between Thompson and Sullivan Streets)

Speakers:

Assembly Member Jeffrion L. Aubry (D, 35th District, Queens), Assembly sponsor

Senator Bill Perkins (D, 30th District, Harlem), Senate sponsor

City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D, 25th District, Queens)

Five Mualimm-ak, survivor of solitary confinement in New York prisons and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

Jessica Casanova, aunt of individual currently in solitary and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

Scott Paltrowitz, Correctional Association of New York and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

Claire Deroche, National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

 

PRESS KIT INCLUDES:

Press Release

Fact Sheet on Solitary Confinement in New York State

Summary of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act

Full Text of HALT Act (A08588 / S06466)

New York Voices from Solitary Confinement

“Solitary Confinement’s Invisible Scars,” op-ed by Five Mualimm-ak

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:

Scott Paltrowitz, 212-254-5700, spaltrowitz@correctionalassociation.org

Sarah Kerr, 212-577-3530, SKerr@legal-aid.org

Five Mualimm-ak, 646-294-8331, endthenewjimcrow@gmail.com

www.nycaic.org

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