NEWS: NY Activists Urge End to Solitary Confinement

By Alyssa Pagano. Reprinted from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEWS: Solitary Confinement Is Torture, Activists Say

By Karen Rouse. Reprinted from WNYC.org.

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

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

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

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

Click here to listen to the radio story.

VOICES: A Second-by-Second Attack on Your Soul

By Johnny Perez. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following is a collection of excerpts from an interview with Johnny Perez, who went to prison at the age of 21 and served a total of 13 years in various New York City and State facilities. He spent an accumulated three years in solitary confinement, with his longest consecutive stay being ten months. Since his 2013 release, Perez has been working at the Urban Justice Center as a Safe Reentry Advocate. He is a full-time student at St. Francis College of Brooklyn through the post-incarceration program Hudson Link and is also involved in various advocacy groups such as the Jails Action Coalition (JAC) and New York Coalition for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC). — Hallie Grossman

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Photo credit: Allegra Abramo

The cell itself is very small, very quiet. Sometimes it gets so quiet that you can hear your own heartbeat. It also can get so loud from the noises and sounds that the other men in other cells make. You find yourself going to sleep to the cacophony of different voices. In the summer, it gets real hot, so hot that the walls sweat. Sometimes, it gets so cold that you have to try to cover yourself with as many blankets and sheets and wear pants and shirts to bed. I’ve been in cells where I could touch both walls with my hands if I stretched my hands out…It could be claustrophobic at times.

[There is] no interaction whatsoever with other humans. The officer comes by every hour, and even then there’s no contact, no talking, no communicating, not even any eye contact in extreme cases. The last meal is at four-thirty in the afternoon with the next meal being at six o’clock in the morning. If you’re not standing wide awake, by your door, when the officer walks by, you don’t get a tray.

[In terms of communicating with people in other cells,] you can stand by your door and yell at the top of your lungs, and somebody in another cell could hear you. There’s definitely no face-to-face contact, communication, that kind of thing, where you could read somebody’s body language. I was playing chess with a guy for months, and I never knew what he looked like…As far as contact with the outside world, you can write a letter, but there are no phone calls. If your family doesn’t come visit you, then you don’t get no visits…Even on a visit, if you’re on level one, you go on the visit and they don’t uncuff you.

[Solitary confinement] affected me in a number of ways at different times. As a youth—because I did some solitary time as a teenager—it affects your self-esteem, it affects your self-confidence and the way that you see yourself. It makes you aggressive, it makes you angry, it makes you impulsive, it makes you an introvert…There were times when I contemplated thoughts of suicide, though I never voiced it out loud. I tended to internalize a lot of the oppression…Sometimes, officers tell you, “Hey, you ain’t shit! This is you, this is your life, you’re nothing but a criminal.” Hearing that once or twice is nothing, but hearing that day in and day out for months at a time, you start to say, “Damn, you know what, maybe I ain’t. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I am what they say that I am.”

As an adult…my behavior was more reactionary towards others…I remember hating all authority figures, no matter who it was. Supervisors, officers, judges, lawyers, just hating the entire world, you know? So a lot of that was more outward, versus when I was a teenager, it was more self-directed.

So, when I got out, it wasn’t easy at first. Thank God I wasn’t released directly from solitary to society, as some of my friends have been. But I was released in 2013, and 2011 was the last time I was in the box, when I went to Rikers Island. They dropped me in the middle of 42nd Street Times Square, after being gone for 13 years. And there’s these flashing lights, there’s people, there’s, like, Elmo is fighting the Statue of Liberty. There’s the guy with the sign that says, ‘I need money for weed,” there’s all of these lights, these cameras, these big billboards, and it’s overwhelming. It’s very, very overwhelming. All these yellow cabs, and these cars going back and forth. When I got off the train, I hadn’t crossed the street in 13 years…so I’m standing there with all the crowds of people going back and forth, and I’m just standing there, to just take in the scene. I spent maybe half an hour or forty-five minutes just standing.

I learned that with solitary—or even prison, but more like solitary—it’s a second-by-second attack on your soul, where every second is spent thinking about the next second, and that just makes the day so long. You try to sleep it off, but sometimes too much sleeping drives you to be awake for long periods of time…You don’t do solitary time, you survive solitary time. And I know this to be true because some of my peers did not survive solitary time. They’ve either left psychologically different than when they came in, or committed suicide.

A lot of injustices go on in solitary, mainly at the hands of officers who might put people together who are from opposing gangs, opposing height and weight, things like that, as their own little human cockfights. They stand at the door and they bet on who’s gonna win. They might say to the guy inside the cell, “If you beat him up, I’ll give you an extra tray of food,” things like that, you know, very barbaric, very dehumanizing.

It’s real difficult to get out of solitary confinement because every ticket that you catch while you’re there leads to more box time. So, it’s not uncommon to find someone who was sentenced to thirty days, or even ninety days, tested positive for marijuana or any other drug, and then end up in there for years at a time, accumulating numerous tickets while they’re in there. Something as simple as using your sheet as a shower curtain at Upstate CF could get you another thirty days in there.

From an advocate point of view, I would say that as a nation, we cannot keep victimizing people to teach them that they shouldn’t victimize people. It’s like the death penalty: We kill people to teach them not to kill people. It doesn’t make sense. We have to be careful about becoming the cure that is worse than the disease.

NEWS: New York Activists Join Nationwide Actions Against Solitary Confinement

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

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

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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. 

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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: 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

 

NEWS: New York Lawmakers Probe Care for Mentally Ill in Prison

By Michael Virtanen. Reprinted from the Associated Press

hearingThe head of the troubled New York City jail system said Thursday it’s critical to send mentally ill inmates to treatment programs instead of a lockup.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte told state lawmakers that Rikers Island is poorly equipped to be a mental health treatment center. The primary goal, one he shares with the medical staff, is to keep staff and inmates safe, he said.

“Violence at Rikers Island the past five or six years has gone through the roof,” Ponte said, adding that assaults on his medical staff have tripled.

Dr. Homer Venters, head of the jail’s health services, testified alongside Ponte. He said admission medical screenings done on every incoming inmate show about 25 percent have mental illnesses, though that diagnosis applies to about 38 percent of the daily population of about 11,500. Those inmates tend to stay twice as long.

Ponte said they’ve taken steps, like limiting solitary confinement, to improve treatment at Rikers, but acknowledged many issues remain. The city also has recently established some courts, including one in Manhattan, focused on handling cases involving the mentally ill.

“We’ve become the de facto mental hospitals,” Ponte said of the jails. “Diversion is critical.”

New York City jails have come under increasing scrutiny since The Associated Press earlier this year first exposed the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates — an ex-Marine imprisoned in Rikers who an official said “basically baked to death” in a 101-degree cell and a diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone for seven days inside a cell last fall.

Lawmakers called the joint hearing of Assembly committees on correction and mental health following these and other reports of afflicted prisoners getting inadequate care.

The hearing also examined other local jails, where suspects go while awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, as well as the state’s prisons that house about 52,250 inmates with longer sentences.

About 9,300 state inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, with 2,300 considered seriously mentally ill, said Donna Hall, director of forensic services at the state Office of Mental Health, which provides treatment. She said the clinicians seldom, if ever, remove or lower those designations.

Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York testified that most remain in the general prison population and get limited services. Fewer illnesses now are judged serious, which would give those inmates more care and keep them from the “torture” of solitary confinement, he said.

Alicia Barazza tearfully told legislators that her 21-year-old son suffered from severe mental illness and committed suicide two weeks ago in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison. He’d gone off his psychotropic medications and had been in crisis, she said. He was sent to prison from Albany County at 17 for third-degree arson. His mother said he’d been abused by another inmate in prison.

Corrections officials declined to comment, citing the potential of a lawsuit.

Advocates said one recurring problem is defendants not allowed by police to take their medications after they’re arrested.

Glenn Leibman of the Mental Health Association called for presumptively enrolling inmates in Medicaid so they can get needed prescriptions when they leave.

Damian DePauw, 35, said he went to Washington County Jail on an assault charge after a violent psychiatric episode. In jail, when he felt symptoms worsening, he said he told a guard he needed medicine and was told to wait for the nurse that night, who said she’d need a prescription from the jail psychiatrist three days later. Over the weekend, he became more delusional, assaulted another prisoner who had threatened him, was stripped and put into a solitary cell, where he rammed his head into the metal door repeatedly, in an effort to knock himself out, until he split open his scalp and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, he said.

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