The cells are the size of a parking space. In the corner is a toilet and a open steel shower stall that emits water for 15-minute periods three times a week. Through a small slot in one wall, guards slide trays of food for breakfast, lunch and dinner--if they feel like it. Sometimes the food comes covered in hair. Other days the food doesn’t come at all. The cell remains locked for 23 hours a day. During the final hour, a door slides open, allowing one to walk into a smaller outdoor kennel enclosed by concrete walls or metal grates. The pen is too small to do anything except pace back and forth, stare at the sky and listen to the din of other caged men railing against their confinement.
These cages are the homes of nearly 4,500 men across the state of New York who are currently living in solitary confinement. About half live in these isolation cells alone, deprived of human contact for months, if not years, on end. The other half live doubled-up in these parking space-sized cells with another man. They watch each other eat, sleep, defecate, shower and slowly lose their minds. During their stay in solitary confinement, the men have no access to job training, education, regular mental care, or even basic human interactions. Perhaps most frighteningly--both to the public and to many of the inmates themselves--is that 2,000 of these men in solitary confinement are released directly from extreme isolation onto the streets of New York every single year.
The often invisible experience of those living in extreme isolation in the state’s prison system is revealed in a new study by the New York Civil Liberties Union
. The report paints a damning picture of a cruel and expensive practice that is being phased out in other states even as it expands across New York State.
“New York’s use of extreme isolation is arbitrary, inhumane and unsafe,” the report concluded after a year-long investigation that included interview with hundreds of inmates and their families, along with correctional officers who work in solitary confinement.
The practice is theoretically intended to separate violent and dangerous inmates from the rest of the prison population. The New York Civil Liberties Union, however, uncovered that the majority of those in solitary confinement were given the punishment for nonviolent, low-level offenses. Nearly 90 percent of the men placed in solitary confinement between 2007 and 2011 were there for breaking one of the minor prison rules, such as having unauthorized books, disobeying an order or growing their mustaches too long (“an inmate shall not grow a beard or mustache over one inch in length”). Other documented infractions that led to solitary confinement included one man who had gambling chips in his cell and another who received 45 days for tattooing himself.
Extreme isolation has long been recognized as a punishment that inflicts irrevocable harm upon one’s mental state. When touring one of the nation’s first forays in isolation punishment at New York’s Auburn state prison in the early 1820s, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave De Beaumont wrote, “This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man ... it does not reform; it kills. The unfortunates upon whom this experiment was made, fell into a state of depression, so manifest, that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger, if they remained longer in this situation.”
Nearly two centuries later, the practice is widespread across New York State. Between 2007-2011, the prison system meted out 75,000 solitary confinement stays that lasted an average of five months. The inmates subjected to this punishment report similar feelings of crushing depression, heat-pounding anxiety and claustrophobia and suicidal thoughts.
“[I’m] telling you now that I am a defeated man,” wrote one inmate in solitary confinement to his attorney. “The prison system has won. They broke me. I’m broken & defeated & all I want to do now is go to sleep. No pain, no insanity ... just blissful, eternal rest.” A few days after sending the letter, the man attempted to commit suicide. The practice is not uncommon inside the box--the colloquial name for the isolation pens. Instead of prompt psychological attention for the inmate, suicide attempts are often punished with additional time in the box.
Even those who work inside the solitary confinement system question the prevalence of its use.
“I’ll be the first to admit it--we overuse it,” said Brian Fischer, the commissioner of the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
New York State spends hundreds of millions of dollars operating 5,000 solitary confinement beds spread across 39 prisons. There are two prisons devoted entirely to solitary confinement, which combined cost $76 million to operate each year. In total, New York State spends $60,000 per prisoner for a total annual expenditure of $2.7 billion on the state prison system.
Recently, other states have dramatically reduced the program after similar investigations and lawsuits by the Civil Liberties Union, saving the state millions of dollars and thousands of inmates from life inside the box. Mississippi, for example, transferred 85 percent of the solitary confinement inmates into the general prison population.
“When we started moving people to lower security levels, we found there was no increase in violence,” said Mississippi prison system Deputy Commissioner Emmitt Sparkman. So far, the downsizing of Mississippi's solitary confinement program has saved the state more than $5.6 million annually.
Given the acute austerity cuts sweeping across New York State and the bloated size of its inhumane solitary confinement program, the only question that remains is: Will New York State be next?