NYAPRS Note: After many years of working to see legislation enacted and policies changed around the torturous use of solitary confinement in NYS prisons for prisoners with psychiatric conditions, it is extremely distressing to learn that NY’s use of the box has increased, impacting 8% of NYS prisoners. We strongly agree that “New York’s leaders, starting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, need to revisit this situation, and fix it.”
New York’s Barbaric Prisons
Albany Times Union Editorial August 15, 2012
Our opinion: The continued, widespread use of solitary confinement in New York prisons needs to end.
New York proudly calls its vast prison complex a system of corrections, a euphemism if there ever was one.
A close look reveals that it is too often a system not merely of punishment, but torture.
That’s not a word we use lightly. But how else would one describe the act of locking a person in a cell little bigger than a bathroom, alone and with little human contact, for 23 hours a day, for weeks, months or even years at a stretch, sometimes for minor, nonviolent infractions - like mouthing off to a guard or even filing a complaint?
That is not a system for correcting or rehabilitating. It’s one designed to break the human spirit.
New York’s leaders, starting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, need to revisit this situation, and fix it.
Rather than a leader in taking an enlightened approach to corrections, New York is far above the national average in treating thousands of its prisoners like caged animals. All the more disturbing is that the practice is even more common today than just a few years ago.
This is not where New York once seemed to be headed. In 2006, after years of criticism from prison watchdog groups (and, incidentally, an investigation by this newspaper), the state Legislature voted to ban the placement of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, a move that would have put New York in the forefront of prison reform. Gov. George Pataki vetoed the bill, but two years later, Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed a measure that should have largely accomplished the goal. It barred the placement of mentally ill inmates in “the box” except under “exceptional circumstances.”
But the use of these so-called “special housing units” has instead grown. Of the 55,000 prisoners in the custody of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, more than 4,300 live in “the box.” That’s just under 8 percent of the prison population. In 2003, it was around 5 percent.
How many of those people are mentally ill isn’t clear. Watchdogs say the state’s definition of mental illness in the prison system is conservative, allowing it to get around the law.
New York now stands out in ways that it should not. Its rate of putting people in “the box” is 37 percent above the 2005 national average, according to the independent Correctional Association, and the state’s numbers don’t include people who are confined to their cells, kept isolated under administrative segregation, or otherwise separated from the general prison population.
Those who are tempted to support such harsh treatment as perhaps some kind of deterrence - or, worse, as a way to save money by trimming the number of correction officers - should consider that it sometimes drives people only deeper into aberrant behavior. In recent U.S. Senate hearings on the use of “the box,” there were stories of inmates in solitary engaging in bizarre behavior, such as one man in Texas who pulled out his own eyeball and ate it.
Consider, too, that such inmates can be released directly back into society if they’ve served their time.
Weigh that a moment longer, and explain again how this makes society safer. Or New York better.