Within three minutes’ drive of The (Auburn) Citizen’s offices, New York state keeps more than 80 men in solitary confinement at Auburn Correctional Facility. Less than 20 miles away, more than 200 people are held in isolation in Moravia’s Cayuga Correctional Facility.
These individuals spend 23 hours a day locked in tiny, barren cells – cut off from all meaningful human contact or mental stimulation. Meals arrive through a slot in the door. Recreation is an hour alone in an empty pen.
The New York Civil Liberties Union recently released "Boxed In: the True Cost of New York’s Use of Extreme Isolation," an investigative report that exposes the state’s inhumane, unsafe and arbitrary use of solitary confinement. We discovered that the practice – among the harshest possible punishments – has become a disciplinary tool of first resort.
In response, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Commissioner Brian Fischer has acknowledged a need to develop “new alternatives, new thinking” on how the state uses solitary confinement. He’s right.
DOCCS imposed more than 13,500 isolation sentences last year – about one for every four people incarcerated. Only 16 percent from 2007 to 2011 were for violent acts. People are sentenced to isolation for months or even years for non-violent, even petty, misbehavior, like refusing to return a food tray.
Isolation causes grave emotional and psychological harm, including severe depression, anxiety and uncontrollable rage. Prisoners grapple with these debilitating effects once they return to the general prison population. Many of the 25,000 individuals released from state prisons each year will have spent time in solitary.
Violent or vulnerable prisoners should be separated from the general prison population, but that can occur without resorting to inhumane and unsafe isolation and deprivation.
Mississippi, Colorado and Maine have ended their use of extreme isolation, resulting in safer prisons and substantial savings. New York could follow suit through two key reforms: First, DOCCS should adopt stringent criteria to ensure that violent prisoners are separated in limited and legitimate circumstances under the least restrictive conditions practicable. Then DOCCS should audit the current population in extreme isolation and return prisoners who don’t belong there to the general prison population.
New Yorkers who expect our state to employ smart and effective criminal justice practices that improve public safety and respect basic human dignity should visit our website, www.boxedinny.org, to send a message to the Commissioner Fischer and Governor Cuomo supporting these reforms.
Gewanter is director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union