Report: Solitary confinement increased in New York

Stephon Johnson | 11/7/2019, 9:21 a.m.
A new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union states that the use of solitary confinement has gone up.
Prison cell

A new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union states that the use of solitary confinement has gone up.

The NYCLU’s report (titled “Trapped Inside: The Past, Present, and Future of Solitary Confinement”) revealed that among the 45,000 inmates detained in state prisons every year, since 2012, cases of “Keeplock” (where inmates are detained in cell confinement with a gated door) increased by 3,100 cases, despite the decrease of special housing unit cases (where inmates are kept in 23 hours of darkness daily) by 2,400.

According to a “snapshot” of people being held in solitary confinement on Oct. 1, 2019, the NYCLU concluded that 99% of people in solitary are men, 57% are Black and 24% are Latinx. In 2018, 32% of special housing unit sanctions and 36% of Keeplock sanctions were doled out to detainees with mental health issues.

New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said that these practices leave a lasting negative impact on inmates that eventually affects all New Yorkers.

“Long-term solitary has caused devastating life-long psychological and physical harm for incarcerated New Yorkers,” said Lieberman. “The Board of Corrections’ proposal to cap some solitary confinement sentences and reinforce protections for people who are held in isolation is an important reform. But the proposal still does not go far enough to end the horrors of long-term solitary confinement in our jails.”

According to the report, the average length of an SHU sanction is 105 days, but 2,600 people were held in SHU for more than 90 days and 131 people had sanctions of a year or longer.

“The BOC rule still permits extreme isolation for longer than 15 days, which the United Nations considers torture,” said Lieberman. “The only way to ensure that people in New York, including New York City, will not be tortured through the use of solitary confinement is for the state Legislature to enact the reforms set forth in the HALT Act.”

The Humane Alternatives to Long-term Confinement Act’s intent is to create situations designed to rehabilitate instead of punishing inmates by giving them one hour of recreation daily along with six hours of programming.

This past June, Layleen Polanco died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island leading to another push by activists to end solitary confinement as a practice. But state legislatures failed to pass it in the previous session.

The Department of Corrections reported recently that 117 people were in solitary confinement and 78 people were in Enhanced Supervision Housing on July 29, 2019. But there are different forms of solitary confinement in New York City jails. In 2018, then-acting BOC Chair Derrick D. Cephas said there were 47 restrictive housing units system wide and 16 types holding 450 people in them.

As a result, New York City’s Board of Corrections unanimously voted to enter the City Administrative Procedure Act involving new proposals regulating restrictive housing and solitary confinement.

Some of the rules being proposed include reducing the maximum sentence for those in solitary confinement from 30 days to 15 days for violent infractions outside of assaulting a corrections staff member. Any inmate accused of assaulting a staffer would still get the 60 days.

The Bronx Defenders want the Board of Corrections to stop waiting to initiate the rule-making process so New Yorkers can weigh in because it’s a crisis.

“Hundreds of people are held in solitary confinement in our city’s jails every year,” read the Bronx Defenders’ statement. “The torturous conditions devastate the people we serve and the harm extends beyond jail walls and out into the community. The proposed rule put forward by the Board of Corrections this week fails to recognize the urgency of this crisis. We urge them to initiate rule making, using the rule language proposed by the Jails Action Coalition and the #HALTsolitary Campaign, immediately so we can bring much needed due process to the jails and finally move forward in ending this barbarous practice.”