In the state of New York, people who treat animals inhumanely – by keeping them in extended isolation, or depriving them of food and water -- can be subject to up to a year in prison.
But for many of New York’s human residents, there will be no legal recourse for the isolation, neglect and torture they are subjected to by fellow human beings. They are the approximately 4,500 prison inmates being held at any given time in solitary confinement in prisons across the state. And the state Corrections Department, the Legislature and the Governor’s Office are all perfectly aware that they exist.
“I feel like I am developing some kind of skitsophrinia [sic] behaviors,” wrote one prisoner. “I hear voice echoing as I try to fall asleep.”
“Mentally, being here drains energy out of you. I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal,” wrote another to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which on Tuesday released an investigative report documenting the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons that the group describes as arbitrary, degrading, inhumane -- and exceedingly expensive. New York spends about $2.7 billion of taxpayer money on state prisons each year, which is about $60,000 per prisoner.
The report is the result of a yearlong investigation that includes interviews with more than 100 people who have spent an extended period of time in isolation -- in one case, more than 20 years -- as well as prisoners’ family members and corrections officers, and analysis of thousands of pages of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) records, obtained through New York’s open records law.
“People spend weeks, months even years cut off from human interaction and rehabilitative services for non-violent, minor misbehavior. The process for determining who is sent to extreme isolation is arbitrary -- there is virtually no guidance or limitations on who can be sent to extreme isolation, for what reasons, or for how long,” said NYCLU Legal Fellow Scarlet Kim, a co-author of the report.
Many of those housed in solitary confinement -- known to those in the system as “the Box” -- are certainly dangerous prisoners who need to be isolated not only for their safety, but for the safety of fellow inmates and prison staff. But only 16 percent of New York inmates in solitary are sent there for violent behavior, according to the NYCLU, which reports a vast majority are isolated for non-violent misconduct, most typically drug-related infractions such as testing positive for marijuana.
Sade Jackson, whose 21-year-old brother is currently in solitary confinement, told reporters he was isolated after a male corrections officer caught him gazing at a female officer who had bent over in front of his cell. After the male officer berated him, Jackson said her brother “talked back,” leading to him being handcuffed and sent to a disciplinary hearing where he was accused of assaulting an officer.
“Before he was sent to the Box, I didn’t know people could just be locked away,” Jackson said, adding that her brother has completed one year of a two-year sentence in solitary. “It’s inhumane. We don’t even treat dogs that way.”
But more often than not, prisoners can be sent to the Box for minor infractions, such as refusing to obey direct orders, selling chewing tobacco, and even for something as seemingly harmless as having too many postage stamps in their cell.
Once they are ordered out of the general prison population and into solitary confinement, prisoners must spend 23 hours a day locked in a 6-by-10 foot cell, where they often have no access to personal possessions, phone calls, or educational, rehabilitative or vocational programs to pass the time. Recreation time consists of an hour in a an empty pen described by the report as a kennel. This is consistent with DOCCS regulations, which encourages a culture of deprivation (including taking away basic necessities such as food, showers and even toilet paper) as a means of controlling prisoners and, ideally, forcing them to obey orders to win back those “privileges.”
To make matters worse, about half of New York inmates in isolation are actually confined in a cell the size of a parking spot with another prisoner, a system unique to the state that the NYCLU calls "extreme isolation." They are forced to spend endless amounts of time in intimate, constant proximity with another man, often leading to violent outbursts. And outbursts, consequently, lead to even more time in the Box.
One prisoner, only named as Daryl, said his time in solitary led to extreme mood swings that were manifested by irrational outbursts of anger and rage, a story found time and time again in the NYCLU report.
“They were kind of like the temper tantrums I threw as a child. Raw & helpless moments of overwhelming … emotions exploding out of you,” he wrote. “I was anxious & overly frustrated because I couldn’t seem to function properly & I would get so [annoyed] with my bunkies that I would just beat on them or scream at them & afterward I would feel so horrible, like a monster or something.”
Several studies have indicated that solitary confinement can result in severe and lasting psychological damage for inmates isolated for extended periods. One University of Colorado study released earlier this year found that segregated prisoners suffer from higher rates of mental health problems such as anxiety, paranoia, aggression and depression. However, researchers pointed out that most of those inmates already suffered from mental health problems, indicating that mentally ill inmates may be isolated when they are acting out, instead of receiving psychological treatment.
Keeping inmates in solitary has not been proven to make prisons safer, even as its use continues to rise. There is also evidence to suggest it increases their risk of recidivism – being sent back to prison after release – according to a 2004 study in Washington State, which found inmates released directly from isolation were more likely to reoffend than those housed in general population.
The report does not call for completely abolishing solitary confinement, which the study authors acknowledge is legitimately used in many instances. Instead, Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney with the NYCLU, recommends that the state Corrections Department enact more restrictive regulations to ensure that solitary confinement is reserved for the most violent offenders -- actions which have already been taken in Maine, Mississippi and Colorado.
In January, New York Corrections Department Commissioner Brian Fischer insisted during a forum at the New York State Bar Association that solitary confinement is absolutely necessary, but added, “I’ll be the first to admit -- we overuse it.”
Despite publicly acknowledging its overuse, the state has made no move to reform the system.