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 City’s New Corrections Chief, Known for Solitary Confinement Reforms, Faces Steep Challenges on Rikers Island

By Aviva Stahl. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

PonteBrattonDeblasio-300x180In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed reformer Joseph Ponte as the Commissioner of the Department of Correction. In his last post, overseeing Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte gained particular renown for reducing the use of solitary confinement by over 60 percent. In fact, the changes he helped bring about in Maine will be a central element of a new Frontline documentary, entitled Solitary Nation, due to air tonight on PBS.

Given the rapid increase in the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island in recent years – and the vocal community opposition to the practice — DeBlasio’s decision seems a timely one. But his appointment has been met with controversy, sparking outrage amongst the City’s correctional officers’ union. And a more detailed look at Ponte’s tenure in Maine reveals that even the most open-minded of institutional insiders have their limits when it comes to real change.

Joseph Ponte first began working in prisons as a guard at the age of 22. In the 45 years since, Ponte has served in institutions across the country, including Walpole State Prison near Boston and the Shelby County Jail in Memphis.  He was even previously employed by the Correctional Corporations of America (CCA), a company that has gained notoriety for turning a profit by locking people up.

Although Ponte has been credited with turning around several institutions, he is best known for the reforms he instituted in Maine. As was recently reported by The New York Times, “Within months of arriving [in Maine], Mr. Ponte cut the population in solitary confinement at Maine State Prison from about 100 to fewer than 50 and the average stay there from 90 days to two weeks.”  He mandated that inmates not be placed in isolation for more than 72 hours without his personal approval and even abolished disciplinary segregation – requiring corrections staff to use “informal sanctions” like taking away recreation rather than throwing noncompliant individuals in “the hole.”

While at the helm of Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte also drastically reduced the state’s use of “cell extractions.” “Disobedient” men in isolation had previously been dragged out of their cell with pepper spray, beaten and tied down for hours, as captured on film in a 2005 expose.Ponte almost completely abolished the practice of placing adolescents in solitary.  He also garnered praise for allowing prisoner advocates and the media into Maine’s prisons, and enabling them to speak to incarcerated individuals without corrections officers present.

Ponte’s reputation for sharply reducing the use of solitary confinement has provided hope to the prison activists and advocates who have been working to change conditions on Rikers Island. Megan Crowe-Rothstein is a member of the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group campaigning to promote human rights inside New York City’s jails.  She told Solitary Watch, “The appointment of Commissioner Ponte is exciting because it shows that our city government understands the need to address the widespread use of this brutal practice [solitary confinement] in our jails.”

In an e-mail to Solitary Watch, Dr. Bobby Cohen said, “As a member of the Board of Correction (BOC) and as citizen of NYC I am very hopeful that Commissioner Ponte’s appointment signals a substantial change from the policies of the Bloomberg administration.” The BOC oversees the city’s correctional facilities to ensure compliance with minimum standards of care.

Not everyone is so happy with Ponte’s appointment, however, particularly not the man who heads up New York’s union for prison guards, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA).  A few weeks after Ponte’s appointment, President Norman Seabrook held a press conference to criticize the incoming commissioner.  He lambasted what he termed Ponte’s “claim to fame in Maine” – abolishing the use of solitary as punishment for disciplinary infractions.  “Punitive segregation is an effective tool that works.” He added, “We don’t need a reformer… We need law and order. We don’t need someone to come in here and tell us, ‘Well, this is how we do it in Maine.’ Well, guess what, welcome to New York City. This is not Maine.

Ponte is no stranger to fighting the unions to implement his reforms; when he was in Maine the CO union staunchly opposed his efforts. As Solitary Watch documented in an article published last year, union opposition to reducing the use of solitary confinement is actually a common trend across the nation.

Several prison activists and formerly incarcerated individuals in Maine have critiqued Ponte from a different angle. Although all praised Ponte for the changes he instituted and for his willingness to meet with them and other Maine DOC critics, they also stated that Ponte’s tenure was far from perfect, and his reforms remain incomplete.

[Read more…]

NEWS: Treating Humans Worse Than Animals: Solitary Confinement in New York Featured on “Democracy Now!”

Reprinted from Democracy Now!

Following the death of two prisoners at New York City’s Rikers Island facility, we look at mounting pressure on jails and prisons to reform their use of solitary confinement. A corrections officer was arrested last week and charged with violating the civil rights of Jason Echevarria, a mentally ill Rikers prisoner who died after eating a packet of detergent given to him when his cell was flooded with sewage. It was the first such arrest in more than a decade. Also last month, Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill homeless veteran, died in a Rikers solitary mental-observation unit where he was supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes. An official told the Associated Press that Murdough “baked to death” after temperatures soared in his cell.

We hear from Echevarria’s father, Ramon, at a protest seeking justice for his son, and speak to former Rikers prisoner Five Mualimmak, who was held in solitary there. And we are joined by two guests from within the prison system calling for reform: Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who is helping reduce violence in prisons, and Lance Lowry, president of the Texas Correctional Employees, the union which represents Texas prison guards. Lowry is calling on the state to reduce the use of solitary confinement, including on death row. “Zookeepers are not allowed to keep zoo animals in the kind of housing that we put human beings in,” Dr. Gilligan says. “We have created the situation; it is called a self-fulfilling prophecy: We say these are animals, they are going to behave like animals, then we treat them so that they will.”

To watch the video segment or read the full transcript, click here.

EVENTS: NY CAIC Organizes Lobby Day for HALT Solitary Confinement Act: May 5 in Albany

lobby day flyer

NEWS: For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits

By Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan. From the Center for Investigative Reporting.

NEW YORK – There’s not much inside “the box.” Cinder block walls rise up and close in. There’s a bunk, a sink, a toilet and a metal door with a small mesh window. Food comes through a slot. Sometimes, mice and roaches scamper through.

Teenagers kept in the box sometimes hallucinate and throw fits. They splash urine around or smear their blood and shit on the walls. The concrete room gets so hot in the summertime that the floor and walls sweat.

Ismael Nazario’s longest stretch in the box lasted four months. He paced a lot, talking to himself and choking back tears and rage. He tried to block out the screaming of the teenage boys in other jail cells in his unit, but he couldn’t. Sometimes, he would stand at the door of his tiny cell and yell.

Read full article here

 

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

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

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

Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Read more…]

NEWS: 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

#  #  #

EVENTS: Lawmakers, Advocates, and Solitary Survivors Join to Announce Legislation to Limit Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons and Jails

MEDIA ADVISORY: PRESS CONFERENCE

 WHEN: Friday, January 31, 10:30 am

WHERE: Judson Memorial Church, Meeting Room Balcony

55 Washington Square South (between Thompson and Sullivan Streets)

 WHO:

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

Jessica Casanova, aunt of man in solitary 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 Solitary Confinement

WHAT:

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.

Just introduced in the New York State Assembly (A08588) and Senate (S06466), this 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 staff. More than 5,000 people are currently being held in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s state prisons and local jails.

 On hand and available for interview will be the bill’s Assembly and Senate sponsors and other legislators, along with individuals who have personally experienced solitary confinement, family members of those currently in solitary, and advocates from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which was instrumental in drafting the bill.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

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

NEWS: As New York City Jails Amend Their Solitary Confinement Practices, Abuses on Rikers Island Continue

rikers demo 1By Aviva Stahl. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

In early January the Wall Street Journal reported that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) had ceased using solitary confinement as a form of punishment for people with mental illness. The last of the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (MHAUII) units was shuttered on December 31, replaced by a two-tiered system said to improve treatment. The step was hailed a significant achievement for outgoing DOC City Commissioner Dora Schriro, whose department came under fire this past fall after two reports lambasted the DOC for violating its own standards in its treatment of the mentally ill.

However, a meeting on Tuesday morning of the Board of Correction (BOC), an independent body that monitors the City’s jail system, presented a far different picture of conditions for individuals with mental illness on Rikers Island – as well as a different version of how changes in the DOC’s solitary confinement policies have come about.

Just after 8 am on Tuesday, in the chilly morning rain, activists from the advocacy group Jails Action Coalition (JAC) stood on the sidewalk outside the municipal office building on Worth Street where the BOC was scheduled to meet. They were holding a vigil for the four individuals who have died in City jails in the past three months, carrying tombstone-shaped posters reading “RIKERS=DEATH” beside a makeshift alter with four candles, and singing and chanting to the people passing by.

Leah, a longtime JAC activist, explained that she had braved the weather for the sake of her godson, who has a psychiatric disability and is currently incarcerated on Rikers Island. She was waiting to see whether the recent changes made by the DOC would actually have an impact on the people inside. As she explained, sometimes the DOC enacts new policies to appease the citizenry “but really, it’s the same old thing.”

At just past nine o’clock the vigil participants passed through security and joined the BOC meeting on the third floor. The bulk of time was dedicated to discussing the quality of care at the recently developed Restrictive Housing Units (RHU) and Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) program, the facilities meant to replace MHAUII. According to DOC protocol, individuals who violate prison rules will now be sent to one of the two units: the RHU for those who are deemed less severely ill, who will still spend time in solitary but have access to therapeutic services; and the CAPS unit, modeled after a psychiatric hospital, for those with more serious illnesses.

According to the WSJ article, prison advocates were somewhat critical of the proposed changes after they were announced, calling the RHU model “far too punitive” and expressing concerns that individuals with mental illness might be placed in CAPS regardless of whether they broke the rules. The Board’s initial discussion seemed to support many of their concerns.

BOC members shared the details of their first site visit, on December 5, to the newly opened RHU at Rose M Singer Center (RMSC), the main women’s jail on Rikers. According to the Honorable Bryanne Hamill, a former New York Family Court judge,  Board staff asked for assistance from a nearby corrections officer when one woman – who had smeared feces on the window of her cell – failed to respond to their knocks. The CO opened the food slot in the cell’s solid steel door and shined light inside, but was still unable to ascertain if the occupant was conscious.

At the prodding of BOC members, the CO summoned four captains – but it was not until the Board notified Commissioner Schriro that the door was eventually unlocked. The woman was found unresponsive on the floor under the bed with a ligature wrapped around her neck. By the time the woman was taken out of her cell by medical staff, nearly an hour had passed since the visitors had first arrived at her door. Judge Hamill added that she spoke to another prisoner who told her that the unresponsive woman had been threatening suicide; Hamill reassured her that the woman had been found alive.

BOC member Dr Robert L. Cohen, a key player in efforts to reform solitary on Rikers, also participated in site visits. Cohen stressed that neither the COs nor the leadership in NYC’s prisons seemed prepared for the task at hand.  Although the RHU program at Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) technically opened on December 19th, Cohen reported that the jail’s warden was “not aware that there was an RHU at OBCC” when Cohen spoke to her on January 3. Cohen also emphasized his concern that the DOC has no plan to identify and train officers and captain staff who are willing to work in the units on a regular basis.

Both Dr. Cohen and Judge Hamill expressed disappointment that access to therapeutic programming in the RHU had so far been almost non-existent. They did, however, have some praise for the new mental health programs established at the DOC, noting that they were greatly impressed with the ongoing quality of care in the CAPS units.

At the end of the meeting, Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and a member of JAC, spoke about her own visit to the RHU at RMSC, which occurred just days after the BOC’s.  One woman held in the unit relayed to Parish what had happened after she told the BOC member (presumably Judge Hamill) that the woman found unconscious had been threatening suicide. After the Board members left the prison, she said, a CO approached her cell to tell her, “there won’t be any food for you.” Parish expressed frustration that this kind of retaliation of could go on even when BOC was involved.

Commissioner Schriro’s voice cracked with emotion as the meeting came to a close. Schriro, who is leaving the DOC to take a job in Connecticut, has been broadly praised for the recent changes in DOC policy, and commented to the press that her department was “proud to have met this significant milestone.”  In truth, however, solitary confinement increased significantly under Schriro’s tenure. In 2011 alone the number of punitive segregation cells at Rikers grew by 45 percent,  and by the time the  BOC-commissioned reports were released this past fall, New York City had one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) pressed particularly hard for the increase in punitive bed space, attributing a spike in attacks on COs to the backlog of prisoners waiting to serve time in “the Bing,” as solitary confinement on Rikers is called. At a November 2011 City Council meeting, Schriro was grilled by City Council member Elizabeth Crowley about the problem.  Schriro reassured her that capacity was being expanded as quickly as possible: ” Every bed that can be converted is being converted.”

Community groups maintain that the DOC only considered adopting new policies as a result of the press fall-out from the BOC-commissioned reports – and that the reports were, in turn, ordered as a result of the campaigning of JAC and other advocates. Those same factors, along with pressure from a few BOC members, led the Board in September to vote to commence “rule-making” to eventually set new policies limiting the use of solitary in City jails.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Commissioner Schriro, but her legacy is not the only thing in flux. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has yet announce to his appointment to the post of DOC commissioner, and there are mixed signals as to whether he will live up to the progressive image he cultivated during his campaign.

Last Friday at Brooklyn College, DeBlasio emceed the graduation for the DOC’s newest recruits, telling them: “You’re protecting all of us….You’re protecting each other. You have each other’s backs. And you’re also protecting some people who have made mistakes.” He continued, “We’re not happy with some of the choices those individuals made, but they’re still our fellow citizens, and we’re hopefully in the process of helping them back to a better path.”

Yet there are some red flags to suggest substantial prison reform isn’t on DeBlasio’s agenda. Bill Bratton, the mayor’s appointment for police commissioner, has pursued racially discriminatory policing policies in the past.  Moreover, during his campaign DeBlasio was endorsed by COBA – a worrying sign for advocates, given that the role the union played in increasing the use of solitary and their resistance to adopting alternative solutions.

For Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney in the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, the BOC’s experiences on the tour reveal the deeply protracted nature of the problems within the DOC.  She wondered aloud what it means that it took an hour for the woman’s cell door to be opened, even when BOC members were present.  She added that challenging this institutional culture will be an “incredibly hard” task for the DOC, but that doing so is absolutely necessary if things are to change.

For Daisy Rodriguez, another member of JAC, these changes cannot come quickly enough. Her 21-year-old son has been in solitary confinement in New York’s jails for the past 18 months.  She told the audience at the meeting, “We want our families to obtain the services they need rather than be treated like animals.”

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