The ‘overuse’ of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons

A model of a cell used for solitary confinement.

One prisoner was sent to “the box” for using too many postage stamps.

Another for cutting a class, and a third for smoking in the bathroom.

All these New York prisoners ended up in solitary confinement, or the cell convicts call “the box.” There, they are sentenced to sit inside, alone, for 23 hours a day.

The New York Civil Liberties Union revealed today in a report that the majority of prisoners in solitary confinement in New York state end up inside “the box” for minor infractions, such as talking back to guards or tattooing themselves.

Just 16 percent are put into solitary for violence or weapons, according to the NYCLU.

The rest? They are assigned to an elevator-sized cell for all but an hour a day. And even for that hour they are isolated, spent in a cage outside alone for recreation.

The average stay is five months.

The NYCLU acknowledges that some prisoners need to be separated, but they argue that minor infractions should never land prisoners such a severe punishment.

“It’s almost cavalierly doled out,” NYCLU director Donna Lieberman said.

Sade Jackson, 26, a legal secretary, said her 21-year-old brother has been locked in “the box” for a year now — with one year more to go — after officials said he assaulted a guard.

“We don’t even treat dogs that way,” she said. “And you mean to tell me we value dogs more than we value people? There’s something wrong with that.”

The report, based on interviews with more than 100 isolated prisoners and includes their letters, reveals anxieties about biding time without access to studying or job training.

The NYCLU refers to 4,500 prisoners daily in “extreme isolation,” because although about half are alone in an elevator-sized cell, the others share a parking space-sized cell with one other person. In all cases, they are in the cell 23 hours each day.

The group wants the state to consider implementing specific restrictions on solitary, such as why someone would be sentenced there and for how long.

Bringing mental illness into ‘the box’

Many have mental illnesses exacerbated by being so long without human contact.

“It can be devastating and potentially life threatening,” said NYCLU
researcher Scarlet Kim, who added, “These men are not the worst of the
worst.”

In one of the letters written for the interviews, Daniel, 52, wrote, “With so little to do your mind rots with thoughts that are uncommon or
unnatural and you wonder where the hell did that come from.”

One mother interviewed for the report said her son, who is mentally ill and in “the box,” suffered hallucinations like seeing a light socket melt into what he thought was a person.

In August, Jason Echevarria, 25, died in a Rikers Island solitary cell
after a reported poisoning. His father has asked for answers about what
happened to him in “the box.”

Head of prisons even admits ‘overuse’

According to the NYCLU, New York State Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer acknowledges they may want to rethink the issue.

“I’ll be the first to admit – we over use it,” he told the New York State Bar Association, according to the NYCLU.

In a statement released today, Fischer said prisoners have daily interactions with staff.

“As society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we remove from general population inmates who violate the department’s code of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities,” he added.

Fischer said the Department of Corrections started reviewing its solitary policies last month.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman at the New York City Department of Correction, added that solitary is a last resort, saying, “The NYC Department of Correction’s top priority is the safety of inmates and staff.”



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