The NYCLU released a report today [pdf] on the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners in state jails, finding the use of extreme isolation a harmful, arbitrary and unjustified practice. The year-long investigation, titled "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons," focused on the experiences of over 100 prisoners who had spent significant time in solitary confinement cells known as Special Housing Units (SHUs).
According to the report, New York State uses a particular kind of solitary confinement in which approximately 4,500 prisoners spend about 23 hours a day either locked down in a solo isolation cell or bunked with one other person. The state issued over 68,000 extreme isolation sentences to prisoners for various disciplinary infractions, which the NYCLU found were not reserved simply for psychiatric or safety reasons, but were employed as punishment for acts as random and varied as talking back to a corrections officer and smoking in the bathroom.
Researchers found that prisoners subject to solitary confinement often came away emotionally damaged, depressed or subject to uncontrollable rage. They were unable to access mental and emotional health programming while in isolation. "I[t] seems like we're all just caged animals to these people & if we suffer, so what," one prisoner with a history of mental health issues wrote to his lawyer in 2011 about trying to obtain mental health services in the SHU. "I'm broken & defeated and all I want to do now is go to sleep. No pain, no insanity…just blissful eternal rest." According to the report, the prisoner attempted suicide a few days after writing the letter.
Many were also unprepared for life outside prison, as extreme isolation deprived them of the opportunity to take classes and participate in rehabilitative and transitional programming. "When it comes to human beings, we are keeping them in cages that wouldn't be fit for our cows," Dan Benware, a former DOCCS corrections counselor, said in the report. "It doesn't take half a brain to realize we're not going to get a good product out of this. It's a Holocaust in our own backyard that few people know about."
Researchers also documented demographic disparities in those subject to solitary confinement, recording that juveniles, the elderly, the substance-dependent and the mental ill were particularly prone to routine extreme isolation, in addition to black prisoners. According to the report, nearly 59 percent of prisoners in extreme isolation are black. And the NYCLU tallied up the considerable financial toll solitary confinement took on the state, noting that the operation of two extreme isolation prisons alone cost $76 million a year to operate.
"New York must end its inhumane and harmful use of extreme isolation," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "This destructive practice not only endangers the individuals subject to its cruelty, but the corrections staff guarding them. It wastes taxpayer money, makes our prisons and communities less safe, and degrades our state's commitment to respecting basic human decency."
The report suggests that the state reevaluate extreme isolation, creating more individualized, better monitored plans for "violent and vulnerable" prisoners, separating them from the general prison population rather than subjecting them to extreme isolation while maintaining human interaction, mental stimulation and rehabilitative and educational services. Additional information about extreme isolation, including photographs, videos and letters from prisoners, can be found on the NYCLU's website.