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

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

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

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

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

NEWS: Historic Settlement Overhauls Solitary Confinement in New York

Reprinted from the New York Civil Liberties Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initially, there was a sharp drop.

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

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

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

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

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

“The escape became very personal,” Beck said.

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

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

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

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

Read the article on Fusion.

Watch the video here:

VOICES: Injury x Insult

By Geri Irwin. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following is a compilation of writings by Geri Erwin, who is serving 25 years to life on a second-degree murder charge. Erwin is a transgender woman involved in various facets of activism regarding sexual assault in prison, as well as just treatment of incarcerated individuals who are on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. She began her activism at 13, and she continues to advocate from New York’s Southport Correctional Facility, where she has spent time in solitary confinement. – Hallie Grossman

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

Most everyone has the essence of a prison cell in their mind: 6 ’x 9’, bars, bed, sink, toilet, light, locker, bikini-clad pin-up pasted on the wall…

But that is like saying we all know the essence of a house – 4 walls, roof, door or two, same windows…then we all know there are many variables in houses, what they were like when they were new, what condition they are in now, and, most critically, as the real estate people will sing in chorus: “Location, location, location!”

Like much in life, jails and their subcomponent cells depend upon the perception of the occupant. When one is fresh and new to prison, everything will look, sound, and feel more foreboding and scary than it really is; this is when you’ll take that eternally long walk through a surreal environment. So many foreign sights and sounds, but it’s all sort of a blur, anxiety expanding in your chest like a steam boiler peaked to explode at any moment. Then suddenly you’re there. Just the briefest impression of the cell front bars – 6 feet high 6 feet wide – two feet or so slides to one side and you’re inside…

This is where you live now…

The cells don’t vary much from one to another. In the end, it is you who makes the cell different from the next, and over time you change – for better, for worse, it doesn’t really matter – you are who you are and the prison is what it is.

I am a 48 year-old, white, male-to-female (pre-op) transgender prisoner. I’m 20 years into a 25 to life sentence.

Life as a transgender person is complicated with a capital “C.” Think of being, say, Anna Kendrick trapped in Bruce Willis’ body. I am 5’10”, 225 pounds with broad shoulders and an overall masculine appearance. I can, and most often do, “pass” as a straight white male – though my sisters and brothers under the LGBTQI rainbow know better, often with as little as initial eye contact…

For 17 years I was blessed to continue my practical, yet patently cowardly, closeted lifestyle. Then my luck ran out. Keen predators had sniffed me out. Through anti-gay hate or morbid desire, I was targeted for attack.

I was jumped by three gang members. While I fought, I was quickly beaten to the shower floor. Cold, hard, wet, slippery—kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts swirling in my overwhelmed mind—a core screaming alert siren blares in my brain:

I can die here—now!

Weapons—do they have weapons?!

I compress into myself, anticipating icy flare of pain when a steel or sharpened Plexiglas shank rips into me. I’ve been cut and stabbed before—I know what it feels like.

But now, no weapons—not homemade, anyhow. What comes is different, worse.

The leader seizes me around waist while another grabs my shoulders. I struggle but am spent, helpless. I’m not processing what’s unfolding. Even as the leader yanks down my boxers and begins raping me, I just can’t believe and accept that this is actually happening, happening to me. All this through a disorientating filter of disbelief.

Yet it’s all too real. The taunting, the harsh manic laughter as the leader continues to thrust into me. The one immobilizing me from the front has his erect penis in my face – trying to get me to perform oral sex. When I won’t comply, he strikes me in the head and face more. Frustrated he settles for masturbating and ejaculating into my face, smearing his semen-coated penis between my lips, against my teeth and gums. Determined to somehow penetrate, inject some of his essence into his victim.

This crowning act of defilement prompts more laughter. I feel the last thrusts and burning, stinging surge as my rapist reaches his climax: Semen hot and alien inside me. Flash of new and different pain as he withdraws from me. They deliver a final flurry of kicks to my sides and back and melt away. Leaving me lying limp, used up—like a bag of garbage…

I gather myself up, assessing injuries, but focus on cleaning the blood (mine) and semen (theirs) from my body. I wash and scrub under shower spray frantically trying to think how I can get back to my cell without COs noting I’ve been in an incident. I dress and limp my way through recreation yard, trying to be inconspicuous. But an alert CO notes blood seeping fresh on my face. Snatches me up and escorts me to the facility hospital.

The evidence of rape is quickly noted. Blood and semen-stained boxers confiscated as well as painful and humiliating swabs (of rectum and throat). I am given minimal medical treatment, no X-rays. The staff takes the rest of my clothes. I am forced to leave wearing only small towel wrapped and held around waist (too short to tie). I am escorted in this manner to Involuntary Protective Custody (IPC).

I am not provided with any further or follow-up medical care. Instead I am issued tickets (misbehavior reports) for:

  1. Not reporting an injury
  2. Drug use – positive for marijuana (yes, I do in fact use marijuana)

Given a perfunctory hearing on charges, I am sentenced to 30 days keeplock for the first charge and six months SHU for the second charge.

For the next two months, I sit in isolation with no staff interview, no further medial follow up. I am then put on transfer to Upstate CF (a dedicated SHU facility).

NYDOCCS rarely transports prisoners directly to the destination facility. One or more transit stops, with overnight to several day stays involved. At a layover stop, I am escorted by a staff member, handcuffed behind by back. I am directed into small room and sit on bench. The staff member closes the door, makes some reference to the rape incident, exposes his semi-erect penis and, standing in front of me, tells me to “polish his knob.”

I am absolutely shocked, but recover enough to bluff. I tell him he’d better just “pull the pin” (personal alarm). He backs off, rezipping his pants, trying to play it off as if he were just “joking” with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as a mere “joke.” Had I complied, that act of oral sex would just have been a bonus for a predatory staff member.

I arrive at Upstate CF exhausted, stiff and stressed out. A sexual abuse incident followed by an eight-hour bus ride with handcuffs attached to my waist, chain, shackles…

As a trans woman in prison I always feel some level of threat/danger, but being held in Upstate CF SHU, I never knew if they would put another prisoner in (double cell) with me – policy is policy, but I’m not even “registered” LGBTQI, for their classification purposes (not that my identity is a secret to staff). I struggled to overcome fear of being forced to double cell with stranger, a potentially violent homophobe or my next rapist… Recovering from one rape, an attempt of a staff member to coerce oral sex from me while handcuffed—the unknown is the scary thing, whether day or night.

I spend my entire time in this SHU wondering if they will toss in a cell mate at any given time – forcing me to try to live/sleep with stranger, and potential next sexual predator, locked in this isolated space.

There is very little staff/prisoner interaction, and when there is you are forced to try to yell through plexiglass window, making communication difficult and negating any shred of confidentiality.

I try several times to get mental health staff to put me on call-out for interview, help with after effects of sexual assault, but with no success. I pursue follow-up medical care and STI testing, finding, to my surprise, that reports and documentation of the sexual assault incident do not exist. The medical report in the file states, “Inmate fell, in yard,” then goes on to detail injuries inconsistent with a “fall” and some unique to sexual assault (perhaps patient fell, and landed on erect penis….).

I am now stating, to them, an initial report of sexual assault. This spurs a Kafkaesque Groundhog Day sequence of fresh interviews by security staff every time “sexual assault” is mentioned. Yet each is either not documented, or inaccessible to the next interviewer. On the whole, these interviews are conducted in an insensitive and dismissive manner. One I terminated when the questioning appeared more to fill a need for titillation of the interviewer than legitimate purpose…

When I was finally given interview with mental health unit staff, I was told that: “I wouldn’t be at this facility long enough to be worth their time/effort to open case on me…”

I have once again been transferred to another general population facility. It is quite challenging and disorienting re-acclimating to the “normal” prison routine. From 23 hours a day in a cell for 18 months to scurrying all over jail – expected to keep pace with prisoner peers, most half or less than my age. There is no type of “transition program” or consideration given to this adjustment period. Perhaps this is an unwritten” part of SHU punishment.

VOICES: Cycles of Despair

By Anthony Davis. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following essay was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, who has spent approximately six of his past eleven years in prison in solitary confinement in New York’s “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. In 2008, New York passed a law restricting the use of solitary on people with serious mental illness. The “SHU Exclusion Law” has removed several hundred people from isolation and placed them in alternative mental health units. It has also been criticized for being too narrowly focused and easy to circumvent. Here, Davis points out an additional shortcoming of this and all laws and regulations that focus only on people with an underlying mental health diagnosis. As he notes, solitary confinement itself causes such severe psychological damage that it often renders individuals incapable of functioning effectively in the general prison population. Thus begins a vicious cycle in which such individuals, who receive little or no support making the transition to general population, land back in solitary once again. Anthony Davis welcomes letters, and can be reached at: Anthony Davis, 04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 4000, Stormville, New York 12582-4000. 

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

I have noticed how Politicians and prisoners’ rights advocates have been advocating for changes in how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision handles prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. There has been an outcry from these groups regarding the lengthy amount of time being imposed on those sanctioned to solitary confinement, the treatment of prisoners, and the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. As a prisoner who has spent a substantial amount of time in long-term solitary confinement, I obviously am an advocate of anything that limits the amount of time that a prisoner has to be subjected to extreme isolation.

I am a witness of its torturing ways and have been greatly affected by them. I’ve screamed for help, only to be ignored, and, in some cases, laughed at by the very people who I have asked for help. Unfortunately, the prison culture doesn’t provide the necessary tolerance for people with mental illness, so, I have been alienated by both, the prisoners as well as the authorities and that gives me a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, which enhances my psychological reactions which derived from spending years in solitary confinement.

The extreme sensitivity that I have been experiencing as a result of being isolated for substantial amounts of time has increased my rage. I often find myself wanting to hurt people for minor things – and had I not been in solitary confinement, I am confident that I would have done just that. With me, there is no frustration; only raging anger. I was not like this prior to me being placed in solitary confinement, and that is scary because the types of thoughts I have when I am angry are not conducive to my desire to do well and remain positive.

What’s more is that the inability to control myself could have disastrous results. Solitary Confinement has made me impulsive to the point where I have begun to feel like I am fighting a war with myself. The understanding I have for what extreme isolation has done to me is not necessarily advantageous towards me fighting the psychological damage. What it does is creates two versions of myself: On one end, I try to fight the other version of me, which is the one who has succumbed to what the results of long-term solitary confinement has to offer. I try to use the power of knowledge and information to fight these demons, but it’s the other version of myself who wins out usually. It becomes difficult for me to apply the information that I have researched because my mind has already been manipulated by the effects of extreme isolation.

For every time that I have been subjected to extreme isolation, my mental health deteriorated upon my release back into general population, and the more I am subjected to that type of inhumane torture, the worse I become. For example, just this past April I was reintegrated back into general population after an eleven month stint in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, I realized that I had completely lost control of myself and had basically become a walking time bomb ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I even suggested to my therapist that I be given more time in solitary confinement because I knew that I was not ready to be reintegrated back into general population. Of course, there was no way that he could accommodate my request, but the point is that I understood the mental metamorphosis that was occurring in me and I feared that I would end up doing something that could possibly jeopardize my life and freedom – which goes back to me fighting a war with myself because a part of me wants to live and be free, but another part of me wants to die and be free.

Almost immediately upon my reentry into general population I felt out of place; like I didn’t belong. I exhibited anti-social behavior along with a very negative attitude and aggressive behavior towards both prisoners and correction officers. The proverbial time bomb had begun ticking and there was no chance of defusing the potential explosion. My pleas for help from mental health staff during my time in solitary confinement went unanswered and what I was experiencing was the results of those unanswered pleas. It was as if I was ready to unleash all of my frustration at any moment on anybody. Not to mention, the fact that there was a lot going on in my personal life between my children and I, and being that I was psychologically damaged from spending time in a long-term solitary confinement, my whole perspective had changed. So I could not even evaluate the situation with my children in a logical manner. I responded to everything with rage and fury

As of today, I have been placed back in solitary confinement resulting from a physical altercation between myself and the authorities. I was not the aggressor in this incident, but I do believe that my negative attitude had contributed to me being assaulted. Unfortunately I was unable to adjust to general population and I am now back in the place where the foundation of my psychological damage derived from after only about five months in general population. During my brief stay in general population, I expressed to my therapist countless times that I was having a difficult time adjusting and needed help. Though I had not known what it was exactly that I needed help with. I did know that something was going terribly wrong inside of my mind because, not only did my way of thinking change but so did my behavior.

But with all of these programs put in place for solitary confined prisoners who have been diagnosed as having a serious mental illness (i.e., Residential Mental Health Unit, Special Treatment Program, Behavior Housing Unit, and Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation), I have to wonder what happens to the prisoners such as myself who suffers from the psychological effects of being in long-term solitary confinement. It is apparent that there is no regard for prisoners like me, so when we are done with our time in solitary confinement, we are thrown back into general population and basically told not to get into any more trouble without regard for the psychological damage that has affected us associated with extreme isolation.

So it becomes a cycle; each turn more severe than the previous one, meanwhile, the time spent in long-term solitary confinement increases as my mental health deteriorates. No one seems to care about the difficulties of adjusting to general population despite the vast amount of people who claim to understand the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. I can only hope that my pleas are heard and some type of action is taken before it is too late.

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: New York Advocates Offer Testimony to Assembly Hearings on Mental Health in Prisons and Jails

Several key supporters of CAIC presented or submitted testimony to the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Corrections and Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health, which held a joint hearing on “Public Hearing on Mental Illness in Correctional Settings” in Albany on November 13, 2014. A collection of testimony appears below, and will be permanently archived on the Resources page.

Correctional Association of New York

Disability Rights New York

Incarcerated Nation Corp.

Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

NAMI – NYS

New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

New York City Jails Action Coalition

Urban Justice Center

For more on the hearing, see the following news accounts:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ny-lawmakers-probe-care-mentally-ill-inmates-26878665

http://m.timesunion.com/local/article/Learning-to-treat-prisoners-with-signs-of-mental-5891924.php

 

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