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New York Subjects Prisoners to Solitary as a Disciplinary Tool of First Resort

Elena Landriscina,
Legal Fellow,
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March 14, 2013

The world got a glimpse this week into how the United States treats those we lock in solitary confinement, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard ACLU testimonies on how our treatment of vulnerable prisoners violates international human rights norms. The short story: we should be ashamed. For a more detailed picture, check back throughout the week for an ongoing blog series on the issue.

On any given day in New York State, approximately 4,500 people are confined for 22 to 24 hours a day in solitary confinement or other forms of extreme isolation in New York’s prison. Despite international and regional human rights standards proscribing solitary confinement, New York uses extreme isolation as a disciplinary tool of first resort.

Once in confinement, prisoners are deprived of all meaningful social interaction, mental stimulation, and programming. As Boxed In: the True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons by the New York Civil Liberties Union explains, the physical and psychological health of prisoners suffers severely due to isolated confinement. And there still are not sufficient safeguards preventing vulnerable people from being sent to solitary.

But there are now many efforts underway to end these harmful and arbitrary practices. Since we published Boxed In in October 2012, more than 10,000 people have urged New York Governor Cuomo and his state Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer to reform the inhumane practice of subjecting state prisoners to lengthy periods of solitary confinement and extreme isolation. This week marked another important step forward in our advocacy: we submitted testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for a hearing on solitary confinement in the Americas, ensuring that our concerns about New York’s extreme isolation policies are being raised not just locally among officials in New York, but before international human rights experts in Washington, DC.

Solitary confinement, as it is routinely implemented in New York State, violates human rights. As part of our work, the NYCLU along with more than three dozen human rights, mental health, and faith-based groups wrote to U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez one month ago to ask him to investigate New York’s use of extreme isolation and take steps to eliminate the human rights abuses documented in Boxed In. For the hearing this week, during which Special Rapporteur Méndez testified, the NYCLU stressed the urgent need for an end to arbitrary policies that allow prisoners to languish for weeks, months, or even years in isolation.

While the broader human rights community is learning more about New York’s harmful practices, the push for reform in New York continues to gain momentum state-wide. Recently, formerly incarcerated people who have spent time in “the box” joined with lawyers, advocates, and family members of prisoners to launch the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC). CAIC’s goal is sweeping reform of isolated confinement practices in New York prisons and jails. CAIC organizes around a set of core observations and principles that call for respect for basic human dignity and transparency and accountability in the state’s use of isolation.

NYCLU will continue to use every avenue available – working with local groups and international human rights bodies – until the egregious psychological torture that is solitary confinement and extreme isolation ends in New York.

Previous posts in the series:

Progress in Maine

ACLU: Solitary Violates Human Rights

Sad State of Solitary in Florida

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