Among some other pretty horrific findings, a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union reveals that inmates caught using drugs in New York's prison system are punished with months, and sometimes years, in "extreme isolation" in "special housing units."
What exactly constitutes extreme isolation?
Inmates spend 23 hours a day "in a room the size of a typical elevator," according to the NYCLU report. They use the bathroom in that cell, and they shower in it. Sometimes, they are forced to share the space with another inmate. They are allowed to write and read, and that's about it. If they are well-behaved, they get to spend one hour out of every 24 in a "fenced-in recreation pen" that's smaller than their cells, and which "prisoners and staff alike call a human kennel." Inside that pen, prisoners "can glimpse the sky through heavy metal grates and hear the din of other isolated inmates."
The NYCLU wrote its report using data obtained from the New York Department of Corrections as well as interviews with inmates who are spending time in special housing units.
One inmate who contacted the NYCLU, named Chris, received four-and-a-half months in extreme isolation the very first time he tested positive for marijuana. An named Stephan received one month in extreme isolation the first time he tested positive for pot, three-and-a-half months the second time, and seven-and-a half months the third time. While in isolation, prison officials refused to let Stephan see his sons report card. Another inmate named Chris received a year in extreme isolation after testing positive for marijuana. An inmate named John received six months in extreme isolation for brewing alcohol in his cell.
Their punishments are extreme even by the the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's own published standards, which allow prisons to put inmates caught with drugs or alcohol in extreme isolation for "up to three months for a first offense, three to six months for a second offense, and six to 12 months for a third offense." (The guidelines also say that "Corrections officials may impose longer sentences at their discretion.")
The NYCLU reports that the same drugs that get inmates sent to extreme isolation are available to them while they're there (correctional officers are the ultimate drug dealers), but that drug counseling isn't. In a letter to prison staff, a SHU prisoner named Kevin requested drug counseling:
[T]his is my 4th dirty urine [and] it is evident that I have a real drug problem and need help (I’ve asked for help once before) and I firmly believe that by keeping me in “SHU” is not going to help in any way, it’s only going to make matters worst for me. So if at all possible may you please help me! (I am sincerely begging you).
That same inmate told the NYCLU that the drugs are what kept him alive in SHU:
It keeps me calm. Instead of thinking about the present, I reflect on family events, parties, family and friends. When I’m sober, I’m bored, aggravated, and miserable.
Cases like the above aren't isolated incidents. "From 2007 to 2011, DOCCS held more than 21,000 disciplinary hearings resulting in SHU sentences for drug-related infractions," the NYCLU's report on says. "These hearings constituted roughly 23 percent of all tier III disciplinary hearings resulting in SHU sentences during this period."
The NYCLU's report is relevant for another reason: Twice in the last year Commissioner Brian Fischer of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has admitted there are big problems with extreme isolation. "A fair criticism that can be made is whether or not we’re placing the right inmate in disciplinary segregation and are we keeping them there longer than necessary," Fischer told the Albany Times Union last month. Back in January, he told the New York State Bar Association, "I’ll be the first to admit—we overuse it.”
From Reason.tv: "Is Solitary Confinement a Form of Torture? Q&A with journalist James Ridgeway"