Citing strong evidence that demonstrates long-term negative impacts of housing inmates in solitary confinement, the New York State Bar Association today called for significant cutbacks in the use of long-term inmate isolation and new protocols for separating violent and nonviolent prisoners.
The Association's House of Delegates approved the report on solitary confinement, prepared by the Committee on Civil Rights, at its January 25 meeting in New York City.
Of the approximately 56,000 inmates being held in New York's 60 state prisons, about 4,500-or 8 percent- are in solitary confinement at any time, according to the report. Nearly 2,800 New York inmates are serving more than a year in solitary confinement, the report states. A disproportionate number of inmates in isolation are African-Americans and Latinos.
"Inmates in long-term solitary confinement often suffer serious psychological problems, including depression, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns and suicidal behavior," said State Bar Association President Seymour W. James (The Legal Aid Society in New York City.) "New York needs to adopt other means of separating prisoners who violate institutional rules from the general prison population without resorting to such harmful and outdated measures."
Civil Rights Committee Chair Diana Sagorika Sen of New York City said, "The practice is applied at a significantly higher rate to blacks and Latinos, and unduly targets those with mental health and substance abuse problems."
The report cites numerous experts and studies on solitary confinement's detrimental effects on mental health in reaching its conclusions. "Courts of law, legal scholars, medical commentators and independent observers have documented the wide range of deleterious effects that solitary confinement can have on the confined individual," the report states.
In support of its recommendations, the committee cited a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union issued in October 2012 that found that New York's use of solitary confinement is "arbitrary and unjustified, harms prison and corrections staff, and negatively impacts prison and community safety."
Solitary confinement, according to several studies, has been shown to have an impact on inmate suicide rates, particularly among those suffering from mental illness. A 1996 U.S. Department of Justice study concluded that "based chiefly on overwhelming consistent research, isolation should be avoided whenever possible."
One inmate who was subjected to long-term solitary confinement, quoted in a report by Prisoners' Legal Services of New York, compared being released into the general population after years in isolation to "leaving a hungry dog in a cage and then releasing it. … There is nothing beneficial or therapeutic regarding this confinement."
During a forum on solitary confinement held during the State Bar's Annual Meeting in January 2012, David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project in New York, agreed that there are times when certain inmates need to be separated from others. But he questioned the methods and extent of the confinement and whether long-term solitary confinement actually improves prison safety.
In addition to the extreme psychological effects that long-term isolation has on inmates, particularly the mentally ill, substance abusers and young inmates, the practice also promotes racial tensions in prison and contributes to additional violent behavior within the prison after isolated inmates are returned to the general population, the report states.
Among the recommendations in the report approved by the House of Delegates for addressing problems associated with solitary confinement in New York's prisons are:
• Solitary confinement should be profoundly restricted in state prisons and locally operated jails by adopting strict standards to ensure it is used in very limited and legitimate circumstances.
• Prison and jail officials should adopt stringent criteria for separating violent and nonviolent prisoners; set standards for ensuring separation under the "least restrictive conditions practicable;" identify inmates who should not be in solitary confinement; and reduce the number of Special Housing Unit beds.
• Solitary confinement sentences should be limited to no more than 15 days. Craig Haney, a renowned solitary confinement expert, is quoted in the report as saying that negative psychological effects take effect within 10 days
• The state Legislature should enact measures needed to restrict the use of solitary confinement in state and local facilities across the state. In addition, it should conduct public hearings to
to examine the harmful effects of long-term solitary confinement.
The report is available at www.nysba.org/substantivereports.
The New York State Bar Association, with 76,000 members, is the largest voluntary state bar association in the country. It was founded in 1876.
Contact: Mark Mahoney
Associate Director, Media Services and Public Affairs