ALBANY - The New York Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday that state prison use of solitary confinement puts more than 4,000 inmates into extreme forced isolation that deprives them of meaningful human interaction and mental stimulation, while imposing idleness that fails to prepare them for release.
In a report following a yearlong investigation, the NYCLU said that from 2007 to 2011, New York issued more than 68,100 sentences to isolation for violations of prison rules, averaging five months each, though some inmates are kept there for years. Many spend 23 hours a day confined to tiny cells, with one hour outside, alone in an empty pen.
"New York's arbitrary, inhumane and unsafe use of extreme isolation has led to an urgent human rights crisis," the report said. "Extreme isolation causes emotional and psychological harm, inducing apathy, lethargy, anxiety, depression, despair, rage and uncontrollable impulses, even among the healthy and mentally stable. For the vulnerable, particularly those with mental illness, extreme isolation can be devastating and potentially life-threatening."
Corrections officials disagreed with the report's claim of inhumane treatment and said separations are used to maintain prison safety and security in dealing with disruptive or violent inmates. Commissioner Brian Fischer said inmates in segregation interact with numerous staff daily and get required services including medical and mental health.
"The use of disciplinary segregation is important to the overall well-being of any of our prisons," Fischer said. He added that a corrections task force began reviewing it a month ago and that he recognizes the need to constantly review policies to determine if measures are "effective and beneficial for everyone."
State data this week showed 54,537 prison inmates across New York, with 8 percent or 4,286 in disciplinary confinement. Most of those - or with 3,151 - were in double cells.
The NYCLU acknowledged that prisoner separation is an accepted corrections practice to remove violent or vulnerable prisoners from the general population, but said extreme isolation is harmful. It recommended New York adopt protocols to ensure they are separated for only "limited and legitimate circumstances" in the least restrictive conditions practicable, while auditing those in so-called special housing units to identify those who shouldn't be there.
"Prisoners can be sent to the SHU for prolonged periods of time for violating a broad range of prison rules, including for minor, non-violent misbehavior," the report said. The report authors said they communicated with more than 100 inmates, families and prison staff while reviewing corrections reports and documents.
According to the report, corrections guidance reserves serious misbehavior findings "for the most serious offenses, such as assaults on staff or other inmates," which result in solitary confinement. But staff have "wide discretion" and records from 2007 to 2011 showed infractions leading to isolation sentences including 35,095 for failure to obey an order, 6,019 for loss or destruction of state property, 4,008 for failing to follow movement regulations and 3,788 for lying, misleading or false information.
NYCLU officials said they found that double-bunking inmates in isolation created similar problems, also adding violence or the threat of it between two men living constantly in a cell the size of a parking space. Only about 30 to 40 women prisoners are housed in isolation in New York's prisons, they said.