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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please watch and share!

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

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

NEWS: Coalition of State Lawmakers Urges New York to End Solitary Confinement

On November 9, more than 40 New York State legislators signed a strongly worded letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and Corrections Commissioner Anthony Annucci to end the use of extended solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and local jails. “[W]e respectfully urge you to end the torture of long-term segregated confinement and replace it with more humane and effective alternatives,” the lawmakers write.

The letter cites a devastating report published in September by Disability Rights New York, which found rampant neglect and abuse, including extreme and prolonged isolation, of individuals with mental illness at Attica Correctional Facility.

The letter refers to the “severe and lasting psychological, physical and social damage” caused by solitary, and to “the systemic way in which solitary confinement is disproportionately inflicted on Black people in our state prisons.” It concludes that “Our prisons are in crisis and our constituents and communities—to which the vast majority of incarcerated people eventually return—are suffering as a result.”

The legislators who signed the letter are all co-sponsors of the Humane Alternative to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, and cite the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement as its “grassroots partner” in working toward passage of the bill.

Until that happens, the lawmakers urge Cuomo and Annucci to voluntarily implement the HALT Act’s main provisions in the state prison system. “These provisions include prohibiting solitary confinement for especially vulnerable populations such as young people, the elderly, and people with mental illness and developmental disabilities; limiting solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days, or 20 days in any 60 day period, for all people; and ensuring that temporary separation in the interest of safety does not mean isolation by providing access to rehabilitative programs and meaningful human interaction.”

To read the full letter, click here.

You can also read the AP Story in the NY Daily News.

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

By Victoria Law. Excerpted from Gothamist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NEWS: Fixing Solitary Confinement in New York State Prisons

By Katherine Todrys, Human Rights Watch New York Committee. Reprinted from the Huffington Post.

Victor Pate spent almost two years in solitary confinement in New York prisons, off and on. Once, he said, he was isolated for 90 days for having too many bed sheets in his room. Only two sheets were allowed per prisoner, but Pate was at his prison job when laundry pickup came, he said, so he kept a few extra sheets to ensure he would have clean ones.

Locked alone or with one other prisoner in cells that can be as snewsmall as an elevator for at least 22 hours a day, prisoners in solitary in New York don’t receive any meaningful rehabilitative programs or treatment, and often cannot even make phone calls. To Pate, it was like falling down an endless hole, with no one to reach for to remind him of his humanity. He began to hallucinate.

On any given day, around 4,500 people are in isolated confinement in New York State prisons. That’s over nine percent of the total number of prisoners, more than double the national average. Most people sent to isolation in these prisons spend months or years there, some more than two decades—there is no limit. A prisoner might be placed in solitary for myriad transgressions of prison rules, most of them non-violent. Black people are disproportionately represented in solitary, as are young people and people with mental illness.

One person who had been held in solitary in New York told Human Rights Watch: “I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out.… I [tried to hang myself] the first day.”

Physically and socially isolated for days, weeks, or months with no treatment, people can deteriorate psychologically. Over 40 percent of all suicides in New York prisons in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary, according to the Correctional Association of New York based on data obtained from the New York State Office of Mental Health.
Hundreds of prisoners placed in solitary confinement in New York are released directly from isolation to the streets each year. Those from New York City are simply dropped a block from Times Square.

Victor Pate survived solitary confinement. On May 2, Pate, who is now out of prison, will join other members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), including members of the Human Rights Watch New York Committee—in Albany to explain to legislators the damage that solitary confinement can do, and urge them to pass legislation to fix this broken system.

We are seeing movement in the US toward reform of solitary confinement. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly, with US support, adopted the Mandela Rules, under which no person should be held in solitary confinement for more than 15 days. In 2016, the US Department of Justice called for substantial reforms to the use of solitary confinement, including by banning the use of solitary for children in the federal Bureau of Prisons. Former President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have spoken out against the practice.

In 2016, the main New York City jail complex, Rikers Island, ended the use of solitary confinement for 16- to 18-year-olds, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced an end to punitive solitary confinement for people under age 21.

New York State should comprehensively change its use of solitary confinement. States that reduce their use of isolation by up to 75 percent have seen significant decreases in prison violence. The Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act in the New York State legislature would limit the amount of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement, end the solitary confinement of particularly vulnerable groups, restrict the criteria resulting in solitary confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives.

For Victor Pate and for all those who have followed him in the solitary confinement cells of New York State, the legislature should take action to approve this bill.

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

By JB Nicholas. Excerpted from The Daily Beast.

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

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

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

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

Read the full article at The Daily Beast.

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

By Dartunorro Clark. Reprinted from dnainfo.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Julia Hettiger. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jack Denton. Excerpted from Gothamist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean Casella. Excerpted from Solitary Watch.

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

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

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

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

Read the full article here.

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

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

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

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

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

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