NYCLU slams NY state’s use of solitary confinement

October 3, 2012 From New York Civil Liberties Union
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The New York Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday released an investigative report charging that the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons is arbitrary and unjustified; harms prisoners and prison staff; and decreases prison and community safety.

“New York must end its inhumane and harmful use of extreme isolation,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This destructive practice not only endangers the individuals subjected to its cruelty, but the corrections staff guarding them.”

The report, “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” follows an intensive, year-long investigation that involved extensive communication with more than 100 people who have spent significant amounts of time – in one case, more than 20 years – in extreme isolation.

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The authors interviewed prisoners’ family members and corrections staff, and analyzed thousands of pages of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) records obtained through the state’s open records laws.

Last year, New York doled out more than 13,500 extreme isolation sentences – about one for every four people incarcerated. Just over 8 percent of New York’s prison population is in isolation at any given time, the vast majority for non-violent offenses – only 16 percent of isolation sentences from 2007 to 2011 were for assault or weapons.

“Extreme isolation is one of the most extreme forms of punishment one human can force on another, and in New York State it is often a disciplinary tool of first resort,” said NYCLU Legal Fellow Scarlet Kim, co-author of the report.

Over the past 20 years, New York has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate an extensive network of extreme isolation cells, which DOCCS calls “Special Housing Units” or “SHUs.”

About half of the 4,500 prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in an isolation cell completely alone, according to the NYCLU. The other half are confined in an isolation cell the size of a parking spot with another prisoner.

While African-Americans represent about 14 percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly 50 percent of the prison population and 59 percent of the population in extreme isolation, according to the report.

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