This week the NYCLU released its report “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” a year long investigation that involved communication with over 100 individuals about the state of extreme isolation in New York. What they found is that extreme isolation is being overused, and in one case a man was isolated for 20 years.
Those interviewed for the report include the prisoners’ family members and corrections staff. The NYCLU also analyzed thousands of pages of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) records obtained through the New York’s open records request system.
DOCCS calls these isolation units “Special Housing Units” or “SHUs,” while the prisoners call it “the Box.” According to open records documents obtained by NYCLU, “New York has nearly 5,000 SHU beds located in 39 prisons across the state, including two dedicated extreme isolation prisons – Upstate and Southport Correctional Facilities – that combined cost about $76 million a year to operate.” Talk about government spending.
“New York practices a unique brand of ‘solitary confinement,’” writes the NYCLU. “About half of the 4,500 prisoners in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in an isolation cell completely alone. The other half are confined in an isolation cell the size of a parking spot with another prisoner, a practice that forces two strangers into intimate, constant proximity for weeks, months and even years on end.”
“I’ll be the first to admit, we overuse it,” said DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer during a New York State Bar Association panel discussion in January. According to the NYCLU, Fischer claimed that New York state’s political leaders lack the “political will” to create reform.
But what do the prisoners say?
“I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal,” said a prisoner named Stephan, living in extreme isolation in New York. Another inmate at Upstate Correctional Facility, Donell, states: “It gets real lonely in here, especially if you don’t have family to communicate with or send you books. I’m grateful to have that, but after you be in this cell for so long it hard to keep your mind outside of these four walls, all you have is memories.”
According to statistics, 5 out of 6 sentences to solitary confinement are for non-violent misdemeanors, including: excessive postage stamps, cutting glass and selling chewing tobacco.
Watch the video below for more background, and head over to boxedinny.org for letters, photos, misbehavior reports and data on extreme isolation.