An illustration of Auburn Prison from Harper's Weekly, December 18, 1858.
Johnny Tremont’s trip to solitary confinement started with having too many postage stamps. Until then, he’d been a model prisoner. When Tremont (whose name in this article has been changed at his request) entered the New York prison system at age 20, he was a well-spoken kid from an upstate college town who excelled at pretty much anything he put his mind to. In high school, he’d put his mind to dealing cocaine. Once he was sent to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in the Finger Lakes region, he put his mind to keeping his nose clean and getting what he could out of his fifteen-year sentence. He enrolled in every program available, quickly earned his GED and then started tutoring other prisoners working toward theirs.
To relieve the monotony, Tremont sometimes bet on sports with other inmates, using the common prison currency of postage stamps. “I was on my way to pay the guy who won a pool between a few friends,” he recalls, when he was caught with 200 stamps, well over the allowable number. This earned him a month in “keeplock”—round-the-clock confinement to his own cell. His cellmate was also on keeplock, and when Tremont could no longer stand the crowding and idleness, he talked a guard into letting him out to go to his prison job. Caught playing basketball instead, he was sent to twenty-eight days in “the Box.”
“The Box” is how New York prisoners refer to solitary confinement. Less colloquially, it’s the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), for Special Housing Unit, the state’s euphemism for its isolation cells. Officially, New York places prisoners in “disciplinary” or “administrative” segregation, but regardless of the label, the conditions are the same as in prisons across the country: twenty-three hours a day in a cell the size of the average suburban bathroom.
A common misconception is that solitary confinement is a punishment of last resort, reserved for inmates who present a threat of violence or escape. The reality—especially in New York, which has the highest rate of “disciplinary segregation” in the country—is that it’s very much a punishment of first resort, doled out for minor rule violations as well as major offenses. In New York, the most common reason for a stint in solitary is creating a “disturbance” or “demonstration.” This can mean anything from mouthing off to guards to fomenting a riot, and it often involves inmates with psychoses or other psychiatric problems. Second is “dirty urine”—testing positive for drugs of any kind. In a prison system where 85 percent of inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, drug use alone can get you up to ninety days in solitary, and a year if it happens multiple times. Other infractions include refusing to obey orders, “interfering with employees,” being “out of place” and possession of contraband—not only a shiv but a joint, a cellphone or too many postage stamps.
With some 80,000 prisoners in solitary, the United States leads the world in isolating its citizens as well as incarcerating them. Though growing local and national movements are fighting solitary confinement as costly, dangerous and fundamentally inhumane—and though states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce its use—in this bluest of states, the prison system is in effect rigged to keep its plentiful isolation cells filled, and thousands of inmates spend weeks, months, years, even decades in solitary. On any given day, there are about 4,500 men, women and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York State prisons. (In New York City’s jails, run under a separate system, there are close to 1,000 more.)
Twenty-eight days is a relatively short sentence in a state where prisoners can spend decades in the Box. But either way, conditions are so extreme, says Tremont, “there’s more of a difference between being in solitary confinement and being in general population than there is between being in prison and being in the free world.” In general population, he says, “you do your programming, go to meals, talk to people, and you can still manage to feel like a human being.” In the Box, “you’re like an animal in a cage.”
“We call it ‘no-touch torture,’” says Bonnie Kerness, who heads the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project. “No one who has ever experienced more than the briefest time in solitary would call it anything else, because it was designed to destroy the mind and break the spirit.” While a lot of New Yorkers “are concerned with the torture that’s gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan or at Guantánamo,” she adds, “they’re living with black sites in their own backyards.”
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Whether solitary confinement as practiced in New York can be considered torture is an age-old question. When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 to research the American penitentiary system, a primary stop was New York’s Auburn Prison, which had recently conducted an “experiment”: locking eighty prisoners in round-the-clock isolation for a year. Some had gone insane, while others attempted suicide; five had died, apparently from a combination of ill health and pure despair. Of the twenty-six prisoners who were subsequently released, fourteen quickly reoffended, offering “proofs,” according to Tocqueville and Beaumont, “that this system, fatal to the health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their reform.”
New York abandoned the practice of “absolute solitude,” as Tocqueville and Beaumont called it, only to resume it a century and a half later, with none of the spirit of inquiry that informed the Auburn “experiment.” Today the little research that exists supports their conclusions: that solitary confinement can lead to madness and suicide, and that it tends to increase both prison violence and recidivism. States that have dramatically reduced their use of isolation have seen improvements in the safety of inmates and staff. Why, then, does “liberal” New York have one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary confinement? And why have these levels persisted, even through years when the state’s prison population—and crime rate—have dropped?
In fact, it was New York’s liberal Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, who passed the harshest drug laws in the country, and it was his Democratic successor, Mario Cuomo, who began building prisons to hold the resultant twofold surge in the state’s inmate population. Under President Bill Clinton, the federal government offered states generous funding for prison construction if they agreed to reduce or end parole for violent crimes. New York complied, using much of the bounty to construct “supermax” prisons and isolated confinement units. Ten of New York’s eleven facilities dedicated exclusively to holding prisoners in lockdown were constructed between 1997 and 2000, according to the Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit with the legislative authority to monitor New York’s state prisons. And they were built despite the fact that, by 1996, violence levels in the prison system had already begun to drop.
In the past decade, New York’s prison population has decreased by nearly 10,000, to approximately 56,000. In the same period, the number of prisoners in isolated confinement has fallen from about 5,000 to 4,500. But this means the proportion of prisoners in lockdown has actually increased slightly, to just over 8 percent. New York maintains two supermax prisons where all inmates are in lockdown (although it eschews the term “supermax”). Most others have some kind of segregation unit. What these various manifestations of the Box have in common is that they combine near total cell confinement with extreme social isolation and enforced idleness, since prisoners in lockdown are not allowed to work or attend programming. They are also categorically barred from visits by the media (including us) and invisible even to many prison authorities.
Mary Beth Pfeiffer, who has reported on the SHUs for the Poughkeepsie Journal (she, too, is now barred from visiting them), has described the Box as “a small barren chamber…with a concrete floor, a steel door and no clock to mark the time. The essential quality of the box is isolation—a gloved hand passes food through a slot in the door; a caseworker’s muffled voice filters through the holes in a small Plexiglas window. Inmates are allowed few personal possessions. Lights are never fully extinguished. It is four walls for 23 hours a day—a psychologically punishing experience by design.”
Jack Beck, director of the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting Project, has “walked the SHUs” and talked with inmates, usually through their feeding slots. He describes a grim world of small, sometimes windowless cells where the sensory deprivation is so extreme that most prisoners spend their time sleeping, pacing or staring into space. In some units, Beck says, fully half of the inmates suffer from mental illness, so “there would be feces on the walls, there would be people howling into the night,” even “people harming themselves” through self-mutilation. “This, I believe, is torture, in any definition.”
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In New York, a trip to solitary begins with a “ticket,” a disciplinary write-up from a guard. Every year, the state doles out more than 10,000 tickets that result in Box time. The average sentence is between four and five months, but sentences of several years are not unusual. Inmates can challenge the tickets, but John Boston, who heads the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society of New York, calls the hearings a “pro forma exercise” offering nothing more than the “pretense of due process.” Prison officials serve as police, prosecutors, witnesses, judges and juries. One of the few places inmates can turn to for help fighting a SHU sentence in court is Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. But in the past twenty years, the group has had its funding cut to the bone. As a result, says James Bogin, managing attorney at the Albany office, its members can represent only a small number of the prisoners who write to them. There are others, he says, “who could be subject to real torture, and I can’t take their case.”
Prisoners who contest their treatment risk retaliation in the form of more Box time, and those accused of violating rules inside the Box are further punished with more time or “deprivation orders.” These can include shackles, loss of recreation time and showers, or seven days or more on “the loaf”—described by one advocacy group as “a dense, binding, unpalatable one-pound loaf of bread and a side portion of raw cabbage.” A Correctional Association survey of SHU inmates found that nearly one-third of them had been put on the loaf—one for fifty-six days.
Because they are basically invisible, prisoners placed in the SHU are also more likely to receive off-the-books punishment from the guards, up to and including physical brutality. Michael Mushlin, a law professor at Pace University, calls the Box “fertile ground for abuse, because there are no witnesses to what happens there—not even other prisoners.”
The New York State Corrections Department has denied that unwarranted use of force routinely takes place in the SHU. And one former guard, who worked for more than a decade at several upstate prisons, told us that “any officer who has worked in the SHU doesn’t look for altercations, because they happen all the time” and are initiated by the prisoners. He points out that corrections officers sustain abuse and injuries themselves, often at the hand of inmates with untreated mental illness. Like most who have guarded the SHU, he recalls being frequently cursed, spat upon, even spattered with urine and feces. He also suffered broken bones while trying to subdue a prisoner there.
At the same time, nearly every one of the dozen inmates we spoke or corresponded with reported experiencing some form of abuse while in segregation. Several said that racism was frequently a factor, especially in upstate prisons where almost all of the corrections officers are white. Eighty-two percent of New York’s prison population is black or Latino.
Malik Sheppard, a soft-spoken African-American man, spent nine years in continuous solitary confinement out of a total prison term of fifteen years. Sheppard started running with the Bloods in Queens when he was barely in his teens and, at 17, was arrested for armed robbery. Like all other 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies in New York, he was tried in an adult court and sent to an adult prison.
According to Sheppard, he got Box time for violent run-ins with other prisoners. At the Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax some 250 miles from the city, he says he was sent to a “Box within the Box”—a special unit meant for the worst offenders—where guards tormented him because of his gang affiliation, and also because he sometimes “cursed them out.” For three years, “I was on and off the loaf…. They turned my water off for days at a time…. In the winter, they would open my window and I wouldn’t be able to close it.” The only exercise he had was in an eight-by-twelve cage, where “my shackles stay on my feet, my handcuffs stay on, waist chain stays on—so I shuffle in circles.”
By far the worst, Sheppard says, was the thirteen-day period he spent in a completely bare “strip cell” wearing only a paper gown. “Every hour on the hour, my cell would get hosed down while I was in there,” he recalls. He does not hesitate to compare it to Guantánamo: “I was tortured in prison.”
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Concern has grown in recent years over the number of prisoners with psychological problems who end up in the SHU. A 2003 report by the Correctional Association found that while inmates diagnosed with mental illness made up 11 percent of New York’s overall prison population, they constituted nearly a quarter of the inmates in lockdown. Many of the SHU prisoners interviewed were described as “actively psychotic, manic, paranoid or seemingly overmedicated.” In New York, throwing urine or feces at a prison employee—behavior that is not uncommon among mentally ill prisoners in solitary—has been made a felony. Other symptoms of mental illness have been criminalized as well. As a result, a prisoner like Adam Hall—an Attica inmate whose initial sentence was one to three years—could spend up to a decade behind bars because of his mental illness.
Hall grew up outside Utica; when he was 5 years old, he set his apartment on fire and then drew pictures of his family reuniting in heaven. Hall’s mother says that he spent much of his childhood in psychiatric facilities and juvenile homes and was sexually abused in two of them. After a series of run-ins with the law, at 22 he was convicted of assault after stealing a friend’s car and resisting arrest.
According to prison records, Hall attempted suicide and was placed in a Residential Mental Health Unit, where prisoners are locked down for much of the day but receive psychiatric treatment. There, he reportedly tried to set fire to his cell. Instead of dealing with this incident as a symptom of Hall’s obvious mental illness, prison officials sent his case to a grand jury, which indicted him for second-degree arson. Hall pled out and was sentenced to an additional six to nine years. Meanwhile, he owes the prison about $5,000 for damage to his cell, so his commissary account has been frozen and he cannot buy postage stamps. When he does manage to write or call home, he talks about cutting himself “to relieve the pain.” One day soon, he writes, “I’m going to really cut myself and not tell no one so I can bleed out.”
The Poughkeepsie Journal’s Mary Beth Pfeiffer studied prison suicides in New York and found that, in a three-year period between 2007 and 2010, inmates in the Box killed themselves at a rate five times higher per capita than those in the general population. Some of the prisoners who took their own lives were serving long terms in solitary, while others had been in the Box for as little as one week.
“I’ve cut my share of them down,” says the former corrections officer who spent years guarding the SHU. In one instance, “we cut a guy down and resuscitated him, and then he assaulted us because he was upset that we’d saved his life.” Another prisoner, he says, repeatedly attempted suicide by jumping off his bunk head first onto the concrete floor. “I still have my own nightmares about the SHU,” he adds.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School who has studied the impact of prison isolation for decades, believes that solitary confinement induces a specific psychiatric disorder characterized by “hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia and impulse-control problems.” Inmates with underlying mental illness have even worse reactions, so they “get into these vicious cycles where they continue to commit this disruptive behavior, and they continue to go deeper and deeper into the belly of the prison system and get sicker and sicker.”
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On June 19 a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin held the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Focused on the “human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences” of the practice, the hearing signaled a new level of official concern over its widespread use. Among those who testified was Anthony Graves, exonerated from Texas death row after eighteen years, ten of which he spent in isolation. He discussed suicides and self-harm by other prisoners and described how he remains haunted by his own years in solitary. “Today I have a hard time being around a group of people for long periods of time without feeling too crowded,” he testified. “No one can begin to imagine the effect isolation has on a human being.”
The hearing also featured Christopher Epps, commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, whose reduction of solitary confinement in his state (largely under pressure from the ACLU) won national acclaim. The few states that have reduced their SHU populations—some by as much as 75 percent—have seen drops in both prison violence and, ultimately, prison costs.
In New York, reform has been modest and hard-won. In 2002, advocates started an effort to ban mentally ill inmates from being placed in the SHUs. Family members and former inmates joined a coalition of activists to form Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, which organized a “Boot the SHU” campaign. “We held marches and press conferences,” says Leah Gitter, the godmother of a former SHU prisoner named Robert Pena. “We did street theater in Albany—we had a funeral march, referring to suicides in the SHU.” They also baked “the loaf” and handed it out to state senators.
In 2008 the “SHU exclusion bill” was finally signed into law. Sarah Kerr, who is tracking its application for the Legal Aid Society, calls it “a sea change” that will “alleviate the suffering” of hundreds of prisoners with mental illness. “But it isn’t perfect,” she says. While all prisoners are now screened for “serious mental illness,” critics charge that the state Office of Mental Health, which handles the diagnoses, tends to be overly conservative. And the law still allows for mentally ill prisoners to be held in the SHU under “exceptional circumstances.”
A nascent coalition of advocates organized by the New York Civil Liberties Union is pressing for more change, and a parallel reform effort is under way for city jails. The notion of reform is less controversial than it was even a few years ago; at a forum in January held by the New York State Bar Association, Corrections Department Commissioner Brian Fischer insisted that some segregation was necessary, but “I’ll be the first to admit—we overuse it.” Even modest reductions, he said, would require that they “change the culture” of corrections, including the stance of the correctional officers union. And, he added, “we can’t make changes without funding, without the legislature and the public.”
If New York was serious about reducing the population of inmates in isolation, those with mental illness could be moved from the SHUs into secure psychiatric facilities, which could conceivably take the place of costly supermax prisons. Prisoners who test positive for drugs could be sent to drug-treatment programs (which currently have long waiting lists). Other offenses could be dealt with through positive incentives or by terms in segregation that are brief, limited and free of extreme isolation. All of this would take political will to implement, and something more: a shift in public sentiment toward the view that prisoners are human beings, and thus entitled to immunity from torture by the state.
In 2010 the American Bar Association created a set of Standards on Treatment of Prisoners, including those in segregation. But enforcing such standards would require prison practices—as well as the politics that shape them—to be driven by a genuine interest in safety, rather than a thirst for the harshest punishments possible.
Michael Mushlin recalls a former corrections official who had placed inmates in solitary confinement once asking him frankly, “Do you think I’m a torturer?” But Mushlin believes the responsibility lies with a broader constituency. “We are the torturers,” he says. “If we gave prisons the resources they needed and said, ‘Stop this,’ it would stop.”
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In the meantime, men like Billy Blake will continue to be used to justify solitary confinement. In 1987, while in county court on a drug charge, Blake, then 23, grabbed a gun from a sheriff’s deputy and, in a failed escape attempt, murdered one deputy and wounded another. As a cop-killer and an escape risk, Blake is considered a permanent threat to prison safety. For this reason, he is one of the few New York prisoners in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s in solitary more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status. He has been in isolation in a series of prisons for close to twenty-five years. He is now 48; since his sentence is seventy-seven years to life, he has no prospect of getting out of prison, and next to none of ever leaving solitary.
We visited Blake in December at the Elmira Correctional Facility, a dreary building on a hill near the edge of town. After being signed in and searched, we stopped at the vending machines to buy what he had requested in a letter: Dr. Pepper and a pizza roll. (The machine was out, so we got a grayish-looking cheese steak instead.) We then waited in a special SHU visiting room, watched over by a guard.
Blake entered—wiry, sandy-haired and smiling—and talked virtually nonstop for three hours. It was the first time he’d had a visit in more than two years. We discussed his childhood (he says his father was abusive), his poetry (some of which he recites by heart), his love of playing the stock market (he sometimes gives tips to the guards), and his fascination with military history (his dream is to someday walk the battlefields at Omaha Beach and Thermopylae). He described abuse in the SHU, some of it confirmed by a lawsuit he won in 2000. And he told us how bad he feels about having deprived two children of their father when “the one thing I never wanted to do was hurt kids.”
We do not know whether the man we met is too dangerous to be in the general population. We do know that the treatment he is receiving from the state can only be described as torture.
Blake’s subsequent letters, which run twenty-five pages or more, describe his “magic ingredient” for surviving the Box. “I’m a dreamer,” he says, “who refuses to accept that my dreams won’t all come true, somehow…eventually.” Dreaming is what helps him get through the long, colorless nights in the SHU. “Sometimes I watch the roaches and I envy them,” he writes.
“In my mind I have fantasized that I was a cockroach and I maneuver all through the halls of the prison, walk under the locked gates and stay close to the walls to avoid being stepped on by a C.O. who’s walking through the prison. Then I get outside through some crack or under some door, walk through the grass that looks like tall trees to me…then I’m up and over the wall and out. Once I make it I pop myself back to being human and I walk off into the night, free again and not even caring if I die that same night, just as long as I can see some trees and feel a breeze and know for an hour or two that I was free again, that I lived to see the outside of prison before my time in this world was over.”