Unlock The Box: The Fight Against Solitary Confinement in New York
On the first chilly morning in September, several dozen demonstrators gathered in front of a limestone skyscraper on Chambers Street in Lower Manhattan. Some wore orange jumpsuits, and two of them held a broad banner with the hand-painted words, “Solitary Is Torture.”
The subject of the protest was the abuse of prisoners—not at Guantánamo, Bagram or some distant black site, but on Rikers Island, less than ten miles away. The protesters, members of a new advocacy group called the New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), argue that conditions there—particularly solitary confinement—constitute torture in their own backyard. The target of the protest was the New York City Board of Correction, which oversees conditions for the 13,000-odd men, women, and children who inhabit New York City’s jails on a given day, and whose monthly meeting was taking place inside.
According to the City’s own figures, the number of isolation cells at Rikers has risen to nearly 1,000 and is still growing. The JAC also points to the existence of special solitary confinement units on Rikers Island, designed to hold teenagers and people with mental illness.
“This type of treatment is cruel and inhumane to any human being, especially growing adolescents,” said Lisa Ortega, mother of a 18-year-old with psychiatric disabilities who was placed in twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement on Rikers for weeks at a time, amounting to several months, when he was 16. “The damage done is irreversible.”
Until recently, it seemed like New York’s penchant for solitary confinement might be irreversible too. But a growing number of activists are working to combat the overuse of solitary in both the city’s jails and the state’s prisons. (New York City and New York State isolate their prisoners at the rate of about 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively—both rates more than double the national average.) In addition to JAC, which focuses on city jails, an informal coalition of prisoners’ rights groups and civil liberties organizations has formed to fight for change at the state level. Critical to both efforts are that they involve directly affected individuals—survivors of solitary and their families. And both draw on the work of an older organization, Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, which has led a ten-year campaign to limit the use of solitary confinement on people with mental illness.
Today the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report that provides New Yorkers with more information than ever about solitary in their state—and which should provide a powerful boost to current organizing efforts. Titled Boxed In: The True Cost of New York’s Dependence on Isolation, it documents the use of extreme isolation as punishment “on an unprecedented scale and for extraordinary lengths of time.”
Nearly 4,500 New York State prisoners live in extreme isolation at any given time, on twenty-three-hour lockdown in the small, barren cells that most refer to as “the Box,” either alone or with one other person. The report calls it “a world of unrelenting monotony, marked by isolation and idleness, where all extrinsic purpose and structure slowly unravel.” Confined to this world for months, years and even decades, many of the men in Special Housing Units (“SHUs,” New York’s label for solitary confinement) “unravel” as well. Prisoners are locked down on the say-so of corrections officials, with little semblance of due process.
“The SHU sweeps in a wide swath of prisoners,” the report states,” including those uniquely vulnerable to conditions of extreme isolation, such as juveniles, the elderly and people with mental illness or substance abuse issues. This same discretion permits bias to corrupt the disciplinary process, as suggested by the disproportionate number of black prisoners in the SHU.”
According to the report, “DOCCS characterizes prisoners in extreme isolation as ‘disruptive, dangerous or violent,’ whose isolated confinement prevents their ‘assaulting inmates, attacking staff or endangering prison operations.’” But in fact, a majority land in the SHU—and even in the state’s two supermax prisons, where all prisoners are on lockdown—for nonviolent offenses like disobeying an order or testing positive for drugs. And 2,000 of them are released every year directly from the box to the streets with no extra support services to help them readjust. For these reasons, the central finding of Boxed In is that “New York’s use of extreme isolation is arbitrary, inhumane and unsafe.”
Gathering material on these “prisons within prisons” was no easy task, say the report’s authors. When we researched our story, “New York’s Black Sites” (published in The Nation in July), we learned that the press is barred from visiting the SHUs and interviewing inmates being held in “disciplinary segregation.” In addition to facing similar barriers, NYCLU endured six months of stalling on the part of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) when they tried to obtain records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. Under threat of a lawsuit, the state finally provided most—though not all—of what they were looking for.
Scarlet Kim, who co-authored the report along with Taylor Pendergrass and Helen Zelon, says she finds it “troubling” that even DOCCS itself does not seem to possess precise numbers on how many people it is isolating, or why. “Extreme isolation is one of the most devastating acts the state can inflict on its people. It is deeply unsettling that New York does not have an accounting of how this regime operates and who it is targeting.” (Links to the documents obtained by the NYCLU, as well as correspondence with prisoners in extreme isolation, can be found at nyclu.org/boxedin.)
The first objective of the report, Kim says, is to serve “as a wake-up call to New Yorkers as to what is actually going on inside our prisons.” But its recommendations also offer a “roadmap for change,” beginning with the need to adopt “clear and objective standards” for separating prisoners from othersm including for how long and under what conditions. The NYCLU recommends using these standards to “immediately audit New York’s extreme isolation population and transfer those that don’t belong back to the general prison population,” says Kim. “This isn’t pie in the sky,” she adds. “In fact, it draws from radical reforms undertaken in several other states.”
Even DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer has recognized that “we overuse” solitary confinement in New York State. “We look forward to the governor and the commissioner doing the right thing,” says Kim, adding that if they don’t, “we’re confident the Legislature and courts will.”
In fact, several state legislators have lately shown interest in the issue, including Senator Bill Perkins, who convened a group of advocates to discuss the issue at his Harlem offices last month, and who will be in attendance at a public town hall meeting on solitary confinement on October 4, along with representatives of the NYCLU, Correctional Association of New York, Legal Aid Society and a host of other groups, as well as family members of prisoners in solitary confinement. (Co-author Jean Casella will be moderating the town hall. Go here for more information on this and other events this week.)
Also in attendance will be members of the Jails Action Coalition, whose focus on city jails could an even more difficult road to reform. Unlike Commissioner Fisher, who recognizes that a problem exists at the state level, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction, Dora Schriro, denies that her jails even use solitary confinement. Schriro points to the fact that on Rikers Island, some prisoners in “punitive segregation” (which inmates call “the Bing”) are allowed out of their cells briefly—to go to the library, for example, or attend religious services.
But “solitary confinement on Rikers is solitary confinement,” says Jennifer Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy at the Urban Justice Center (UJC). “People are confined to their cells, alone, for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day.” Parish believes Schriro has “no understanding of how detrimental solitary can be,” especially for people with mental illness, who are put in special solitary units where their condition tends to further deteriorate, sometimes to the point of suicide.
In response to these statements, Deputy Commission Matthew Nerzig said: "The NYC Department of Correction’s top priority is the safety of inmates and staff. To keep them safe, the Department has a range of security measures—including, as a last resort, punitive segregation. In fact, no other major city's correction department can match New York City’s as far as due process, right of appeal and access to visits, religious observance and recreation when it comes to administering punitive segregation."
In fact, New York City is bucking a nascent national trend toward “rethinking” and reducing the use of solitary confinement, by actively expanding its use of isolation. “Every bed that can be converted is being converted” to be used for punitive segregation, Commissioner Schriro said at a November 17 meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.
In the face of pushback from Schriro and from the corrections officers union, JAC plans additional demonstrations in the future. “We need to change the culture of corrections in New York City,” says Dilcio Acosta, Criminal Justice Advocate at the UJC. “And we can’t do it without public support.”
Scarlet Kim agrees that public engagement is key to any real change. She is concerned that “most people hear the words prisons or prisoners and immediately tune out. They think ‘this isn’t my problem.’ But it’s our civic duty to learn what happens inside our prisons and jails.”
One of the prisoners featured in Boxed In put it this way: “I guess they forget people make mistakes which land them in jail & the fact that we was living a normal life, too, before our conviction,” he wrote from his solitary cell in a letter to the NYCLU. “It’s sad the things we have to go through just to make it home in one piece.”