NYAPRS Note: The following piece relates to the recent NYS settlement that is expected to reduce the prison solitary population by eliminating solitary confinement as punishment for all minor violations and limiting duration of most solitary sentences. Moreover, it will abolish several of solitary’s most dehumanizing features altogether. Many advocates, including our own Harvey Rosenthal, agree that while the settlement is a reasonable first step, it is too incremental and does not go far enough in dealing with the well-researched traumatic effects of solitary confinement on inmates.
New York's Solitary Confinement Settlement A First Step
NYCLU and Gov. Cuomo Hail Action, But Advocates Say Change is Incremental
Paul Grondahl Albany Times Union December 22, 2015
The New York Civil Liberties Union and Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed last week's "historic settlement" that overhauled the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, but prisoner advocates who have toiled for two decades considered it merely incremental.
"I applaud this as a first step, but we are a long way from where we should be. The bottom line is that people can be put in extreme isolation in a cell the size of a bathroom for a very long time, which is torture," said Jack Beck, director of the Prisoner Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York. He's been on the front lines of a campaign for a complete ban on solitary confinement for many years. In contrast, prison officials and correction officers defend the practice as a necessary tool for disciplining unruly inmates.
About 4,400 of the state's roughly 52,000 inmates in state prison are currently placed in some kind of isolated confinement, the most common form being "Special Housing Units" or SHUs. Prisoners call it The Box.
That's almost 8 percent of state prisoners in solitary confinement, nearly double the national average of 4.4 percent, Beck said. Progressive states such as Colorado and Washington reduced the number of inmates in solitary confinement to less than 2 percent.
Once the changes outlined in the legal settlement are phased in over the next three years — 23 of 87 specified violations that result in solitary confinement will be abolished — about 1,100 inmates will be removed from SHUs.
"Even with that reduction, we'll still have 6 percent in solitary, well above the national average," Beck said.
The story is not a new one. My award-winning series, "The New Asylum," was published in the Times Union in 2000. It chronicled the psychological impact of solitary confinement and extreme isolation: depression, increased paranoia, agitation, manic activity, delusions, florid psychotic illness and suicide.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School professor, authored a landmark 1979 study of prisoners in solitary confinement and coined the term "SHU syndrome." He told me: "These places are breeding grounds for mental illness. They're taking sick people and making them sicker. Mentally ill people need treatment, not disciplinary punishment."
The number of prison suicides in New York increased 186 percent between 2001 and 2010, the highest rate in 28 years, according to Beck. I've written extensively about the case of Benjamin Van Zandt, a former Bethlehem High student who suffered from mental illness and hanged himself in a solitary confinement cell on Oct. 30, 2014 at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County. He was 21. His parents have filed three wrongful death lawsuits.
"It's discouraging that the state has always had to be dragged into changes in solitary confinement as a result of litigation," said Robert Corliss of Schenectady, a retired prisoner advocate who strove to abolish solitary confinement for many years working with the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
"There's something profoundly wrong with the whole idea of punishing people who need mental health treatment," Corliss said.
Several of the state's prisoners have been held in solitary for more than 20 years, and one of the longest stretches is 34 years by serial killer and rapist Lemuel Smith, 73, an Amsterdam native whose notorious killing spree covered Albany, Colonie and Schenectady. He was put in the SHU after he strangled and mutilated 31-year-old correction officer Donna Payant in 1981 at Green Haven Correctional Facility. He's serving several life sentences and is held in a SHU at maximum-security Five Points Correctional Facility in Seneca County.
"The settlement is an encouraging step toward ending torture, but we still have a long way to go," said Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, who fought for reductions in years past for solitary confinement of inmates with severe mental illness.
"It is an important change in a system that desperately needs reform, but it does not include the needed limit on the total length of time a person may be held in solitary confinement," said John Boston, project director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society.
Alison Coleman, of Guilderland, executive director of Prison Families of New York, observed the psychological damage that solitary confinement leaves on prisoners.
Her husband, Jay Coleman, was released in 2006 after serving 25 years for third-degree robbery in 1981. He was shuffled among 15 different prisons and spent time in solitary confinement. He was caught smoking pot and sent to a newly constructed supermax SHU prison, Upstate Correctional Facility, in Malone, Franklin County.
"A deputy commissioner told me he was under orders to fill Upstate's SHU cells, so he sent Jay there for six months," she said.
Jay Coleman works as a client coordinator for the New York State Defenders Association in Albany, but the SHU time left psychological scars. "I was already paying for my crime and it was a double punishment," he told me in 2006.
Alison Coleman added, "It seems very easy for the state to build prison cells quickly when they want to, but they don't know how to dismantle them."