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New York City’s New Corrections Chief, Known for Solitary Confinement Reforms, Faces Steep Challenges on Rikers Island

Solitary Watch - Tue, 04/22/2014 - 20:31

New York City’s new Commissioner of Correction, Joseph Ponte, with NYPD chief Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill DeBlasio.

In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed reformer Joseph Ponte as the Commissioner of the Department of Correction. In his last post, overseeing Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte gained particular renown for reducing the use of solitary confinement by over 60 percent. In fact, the changes he helped bring about in Maine will be a central element of a new Frontline documentary, entitled Solitary Nation, due to air tonight on PBS.

Given the rapid increase in the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island in recent years – and the vocal community opposition to the practice — DeBlasio’s decision seems a timely one. But his appointment has been met with controversy, sparking outrage amongst the City’s correctional officers’ union. And a more detailed look at Ponte’s tenure in Maine reveals that even the most open-minded of institutional insiders have their limits when it comes to real change.

Joseph Ponte first began working in prisons as a guard at the age of 22. In the 45 years since, Ponte has served in institutions across the country, including Walpole State Prison near Boston and the Shelby County Jail in Memphis.  He was even previously employed by the Correctional Corporations of America (CCA), a company that has gained notoriety for turning a profit by locking people up.

Although Ponte has been credited with turning around several institutions, he is best known for the reforms he instituted in Maine. As was recently reported by The New York Times, “Within months of arriving [in Maine], Mr. Ponte cut the population in solitary confinement at Maine State Prison from about 100 to fewer than 50 and the average stay there from 90 days to two weeks.”  He mandated that inmates not be placed in isolation for more than 72 hours without his personal approval and even abolished disciplinary segregation – requiring corrections staff to use “informal sanctions” like taking away recreation rather than throwing noncompliant individuals in “the hole.”

While at the helm of Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte also drastically reduced the state’s use of “cell extractions.” “Disobedient” men in isolation had previously been dragged out of their cell with pepper spray, beaten and tied down for hours, as captured on film in a 2005 expose.Ponte almost completely abolished the practice of placing adolescents in solitary.  He also garnered praise for allowing prisoner advocates and the media into Maine’s prisons, and enabling them to speak to incarcerated individuals without corrections officers present.

Ponte’s reputation for sharply reducing the use of solitary confinement has provided hope to the prison activists and advocates who have been working to change conditions on Rikers Island. Megan Crowe-Rothstein is a member of the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group campaigning to promote human rights inside New York City’s jails.  She told Solitary Watch, “The appointment of Commissioner Ponte is exciting because it shows that our city government understands the need to address the widespread use of this brutal practice [solitary confinement] in our jails.”

In an e-mail to Solitary Watch, Dr. Bobby Cohen said, “As a member of the Board of Correction (BOC) and as citizen of NYC I am very hopeful that Commissioner Ponte’s appointment signals a substantial change from the policies of the Bloomberg administration.” The BOC oversees the city’s correctional facilities to ensure compliance with minimum standards of care.

Not everyone is so happy with Ponte’s appointment, however, particularly not the man who heads up New York’s union for prison guards, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA).  A few weeks after Ponte’s appointment, President Norman Seabrook held a press conference to criticize the incoming commissioner.  He lambasted what he termed Ponte’s “claim to fame in Maine” – abolishing the use of solitary as punishment for disciplinary infractions.  “Punitive segregation is an effective tool that works.” He added, “We don’t need a reformer… We need law and order. We don’t need someone to come in here and tell us, ‘Well, this is how we do it in Maine.’ Well, guess what, welcome to New York City. This is not Maine.

Ponte is no stranger to fighting the unions to implement his reforms; when he was in Maine the CO union staunchly opposed his efforts. As Solitary Watch documented in an article published last year, union opposition to reducing the use of solitary confinement is actually a common trend across the nation.

Several prison activists and formerly incarcerated individuals in Maine have critiqued Ponte from a different angle. Although all praised Ponte for the changes he instituted and for his willingness to meet with them and other Maine DOC critics, they also stated that Ponte’s tenure was far from perfect, and his reforms remain incomplete.

Judy Garvey is a board member of the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), a group that campaigns for more humane conditions on the inside.  “[Ponte] chose to leave the prison staffing-administration ‘good ol boy’ system basically intact, or was not able to dismantle it,” she told Solitary Watch. “The unions — not as strong here as in New York City — were against him, unfortunately, yet there was much more that could have been done to eliminate historically abusive staffers.”

Garvey and other prison advocates in Maine also point out that Ponte brought in US C-SOG, a private special-ops contractor, to corrections officer in methods of riot control. Now, according to one activist, “units of Maine guards parade in military-type garb carrying automatic weapons,” and also carry more “non-lethal” weapons, including stun guns, flash and bang instruments, rubber bullets, mace and pepper spray. Under Ponte’s tenure, the double-bunking has also greatly increased.

Joseph Jackson is MPAC’s assistant coordinator. He spent twenty years behind bars in Maine, and worked with Ponte to institute reforms both while he was inside and since his release. While the solitary reforms instituted by Ponte show no signs of increasing prison violence, the same may not be true of his other changes. The militarization of CO culture, plus the increase in double-bunking, has created a more “stressful environmenton the inside, he says, especially for men serving long sentences. Jackson pointed out that there have been four prisoner deaths in Maine in the last five years, whereas “prior to [Ponte] coming on was one in the last 19 years.”

COBA’s Norman Seabrook takes the opposite position, arguing that any increase in violence in Maine is proof that Ponte’s “soft” approach to prisoners doesn’t work. “A correction officer or an inmate will die at the hands of an inmate in the Department of Corrections really soon… And it’s going to be on the steps of City Hall that I deliver that body,” he said at the recent COBA press conference. Rikers has also been struggling to cope with a surge in violent behavior, which seems not to have been helped by the dramatic increase in solitary cells under Ponte’s predecessor, Dora Schriro.

Many former prison officials and mental health workers believe that solitary confinement actually increases the danger posed to staff and other inmates.  Dr. Bobby Cohen, the BOC member who is also a former director of medical services at Rikers, recently spoke to the Center for Investigative Reporting about the increased violence in the jail system. “We know that, particularly for mentally ill people, the longer they are in solitary confinement – the fact of being in solitary confinement – increases the chance of serious violence. Serious, in particular, violence in the interaction with correction staff both during and after their release from solitary confinement while they’re still on Rikers Island.”

Ponte may have faced insurmountable barriers in solving the safety problem. According to Lance Tapley, who has long covered the abuses in Maine’s prison system for The Portland Phoenix, Ponte increased double-celling because of budgetary constraints.  Between 2009 and 2012, expenditure for Maine’s state prison decreased by about $9.2 million.

Another underreported aspect of Ponte’s time in Maine is the role MPAC and other activists played in pushing the state to institute reforms.  According to an article published in 2011 in The Crime Report: “Ponte and his committee guiding the reforms have as their playbook a bold report commissioned last year by the legislature at the behest of these activists. The report resulted from a study of solitary confinement that legislators ordered as a substitute for a bill they defeated that had been pushed by prisoner-rights, civil-liberties, religious, and mental-health groups. The bill would have greatly restricted the use of isolation.”

For activists, Ponte’s tenure may demonstrate the pitfalls of introducing partial or ad-hoc changes in place of wholesale reforms or the outright abolition of solitary. Ray Luc Levasseur was born and raised in Maine and has been involved in prison justice organizing for decades.  (He is also a former political prisoner who spent more than 15 years in isolation).  In an email to Solitary Watch, Levasseur explained: “[Ponte] delegated the ultimate authority to himself to decide who remains in solitary and for how long. MPAC initiated and supported legislation to curb use of solitary confinement but the bill was rejected in the state legislature.  Had the bill passed, the reduction of solitary confinement would have had the force of law behind it.  Ponte will be replaced by another person and it’s any guess what he or she will do.”

Levasseur’s insights are especially timely given the recent introduction of the Humane Alternative to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act into the state legislature.  If passed, the bill would virtually ban the use of isolation beyond 15 days across New York State’s prisons and jails—including Rikers Island. At the city level, the Board of Correction is also working on new regulations that could also bring significant changes to the practice of solitary on Rikers.

With Ponte in office for just a few weeks, it is yet to be seen how his appointment will change the landscape for those on all sides of the solitary confinement debate.  From Maine, Judy Garvey pressed those on all sides to give Ponte a chance: “MPAC wants Joe Ponte to succeed in New York, as the plight of those living on Rikers Island is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions that affects every New York citizen.  MPAC doesn’t want to unintentionally provide fuel to the predictable knee-jerk reactions by the New York City union and undermine what Ponte might be able to do.  They should take a deep breath and give Joe Ponte a chance since he can actually improve their working conditions.”

The post New York City’s New Corrections Chief, Known for Solitary Confinement Reforms, Faces Steep Challenges on Rikers Island appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: Analyzing Isolation, Part I

Solitary Watch - Mon, 04/21/2014 - 07:30

This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is counterproductive. 

The following comes from Robert W. Howe, who was serving his fourth year at federal supermax ADX  Florence in rural Colorado at the time this piece was written. According to his letter, he will have spent almost a decade at the federal supermax upon his release to a lower security prison (so long as he receives no write-ups for rule violations). In his piece, entitled “Thoughts from Inside the Control Unit: A Prisoner’s Perspective,” Howe describes the effects of “being physically confined in an extremely small cell for years on end.” –Lisa Dawson

Credits: The Guardian


Truth About Consequences

The control unit at U.S. penitentiary max in Florence, Colorado, is a 23-hour a day lockdown facility, where I am currently serving a 95-month administrative sentence. I was given this sentence for taking a correctional officer hostage for two and half hours at USP Atwater in October 2007. I was given an additional life sentence for the hostage incident. The administrative 95-month sentence is the FBOP’s way to seek some form of retribution for my actions. Now the BOP will say that I’m not being punished. By the end of this essay I would like for you, the reader, to determine where the truth lies. There’s three sides to every story: their side, my side and then there’s the truth…

Into my fourth year here at the federal supermax control unit, certain issues are becoming readily apparent. Psychological strains of anxiety and bouts of mild depression are beginning to surface in this stark encapsulated environment. I find myself constantly rearranging the small amount of property I’m allowed to keep. I do this in order to break up the samenesss of my cell and the “Groundhog Day” effect of repetitious occurrence.

The ever-present background noise of demented individuals who bang, broadcasting toothless – or tooth-full – threats, the sounds of the toilets, sinks, showers, sliding grill-gate bars, steel doors, fire alarms blaring, officers keys clanking, staff radio blare at full volume, and a myriad of other sounds that become nuisance noise constantly assault your senses.

The consequences of being physically confined in an extremely small cell for years on end have already begun to take a toll. Since my arrival here, I have suffered prolonged hypertension, necessitating blood pressure medication and chronic care visits. The optometrist gave me glasses and told me that individuals who are confined lose their vision at a higher rate due to the fact that we don’t get to use our long distance vision. I have joint pain from the never-ending hard surfaces, vitamin deficiency from lack of natural sunlight and probably others that would take a professional to diagnose.

Stark or Stark Raving

While it is true that one doesn’t need to worry about being in a physical altercation in the control unit (except with staff), the assault on your physical being and mental state is constant and unrelenting. When this facility opened, it was labeled as “one of the most psychologically debilitating places on earth” (Newsweek, July 13, 1998).

I have been amazed at the physical conditions. The parts that I have been subjected to are antiseptically stark. When I arrived here, I was placed on A-Range in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), which always smelled of mace, feces, urine and the musk of unwashed bodies. That is where dysfunctional inmates who have severe mental and/or disciplinary issues were kept. The control unit has its own version of A-Range, albeit scaled down to a few glass houses, which are cells with Plexiglas on the bars. Even here in the control unit, where rigid protocols are claimed to be enforced, inmates with psychological issues are supposed to be screened out. Yet I find it fascinating that I continue to observe individuals who have degenerated into babbling, banging, crying and erratic behaviors, including successful suicide.

The jaded attitudes of staff and inmates alike seem to incubate a culture of pervasiveness and apathy. My observations these past few years have detected unconcern, psychological degradation and outright alienation of the mentally ill. The psychology department’s attitude towards control unit inmates is dismissive at best and unscrupulous at worst…

Control’s Silent Tool

Most control unit inmates were at one point social creatures similar to regular individuals with the exception that they’ve been forced to inhabit an unnaturally sterile microcosm in an environment that restricts social means not just with other inmates, but also with family and friends. When the administration only allows someone one 15-minute phone call per month, and restricts the amount of mail they can send out by providing stamped, addressed envelopes under the guise of a “security issue,” instead of selling them on commissary, that is an administrative penal effort to staunch social interaction. When you go to team hearings, they request that you have good familial ties, and if you don’t, points can be added to you security score, which of course they control. The average inmate in the bureau supposedly gets 300 minutes each month of phone time and “unlimited” mailing privileges. It’s almost Kafkaesque, the treatment disparity we incur. Even Senator John McCain said of extended solitary confinement, “It’s an awful thing, solitary… It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of torture or mistreatment.”

…If I am able to remain incident free, I will not be eligible to leave ADX until I have almost a decade ensconced in this environment. What amount of resilience am I going to need to stay sane, much less remain socially acceptable to my peers? I feel like Sisyphus, forever sentenced to roll my boulder up the hill, only to find myself at the bottom with no end in sight.

Unspirited Letter of Law

Control unit confinement is a beast unto itself. Federal courts have given prison administrators carte-blanche to run their operations with little to no oversight. With the emphasis here on “control,” control implies being controlled by someone or something. The question begs then, with the body controlled, what price does the mind suffer? The influence of physical control on the body has serious significance on one’s mental state. There is no human being that can tell me this environment is conducive to even fair mental health; even those who work and study this environment lead compartmentalized lives.

Only total immersion can give one a clarified truth. Control units are allegedly subjected to human rights standards… The conditions of control unit confinement are both physically and mentally severe. They are disproportionate to legitimate security needs and inmate management objectives. They disregard the very real need for significant human contact, which shows a stunning disregard for us as human beings.

There are a couple of old sayings: “familiarity breeds contempt” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Together they form the spirit of supermaximum ideology. Unfortunately there is no measurement taken for misery and suffering… The absence of normal social interactions, exposure to non-natural environments, and any semblance or perceived normalcy all are detrimental to the physical, mental and spiritual self. I know beyond a doubt that prisoners who are exposed to years or decades of hostile control unit environments experience rage, depression, despair, anxiety and a plethora of other issues.

The provisions that are made for control unit inmates are almost non-existent. More often than not, the psychological staff representative at team hearings, which occur monthly, are silent, asking no questions. Yet they base their reports on those two to five-minute interludes… They do not make rounds in the unit. They come to your cell if you request any form of treatment, with your outer door open so that all four of them can get in your sally port. Now everyone on the tier can hear your innermost thoughts…

Forced Transference

Inmates who have diagnosed yet untreated serious mental illnesses should not be housed alongside inmates who are trying to maintain their fragile grips on sanity in a control unit environment. It is not fair to the mentally ill inmate, and it creates an unnecessary burden on those inmates who are forced to deal with seriously mentally ill inmates who would not be in this environment if the administration would follow their own protocol… One could surmise that forced transference may be a precursor to perfectly normal inmates acquiring symptoms and issues of their own. This breakdown by the psychology department at ADX, as well as administrators, shows a dereliction of duty to the degree of deliberate indifference.

In closing, unless a true and meaningful effort is made to address this extremely serious problem, it will only continue to get worse, leaving a blemishing stain on the conscience of a society that claims even prisoners deserve to be free of physical and mental torture (as stated in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).

The post Voices from Solitary: Analyzing Isolation, Part I appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [4/20/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 04/20/2014 - 22:00

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• April 17 marked Albert Woodfox’s 42nd year in solitary confinement. Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3, remains locked up even though his sentence has been overturned three times.

• Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic pens a review of Solitary Nation, the first of two highly anticipated Frontline documentaries about the US criminal justice system. Solitary Nation is due to air on PBS on Tuesday night.

• The Center for Investigative Reporting posted their newest story on Medium: an in-depth look at Santa Cruz Country Juvenile Hall, which is “considered a model facility when it still places youth in 23-hour isolation, sometimes for days on end”.   CIR also posted a Q&A with a neuroscientist about how isolation affects still-developing brains.

• A Maine court has sent an individual with a diagnosed personality disorder back to prison after ruling that he now has “substantial capacity to appreciate [the] wrongfulness” of his behavior. Experts testified that Michael James had improved while in a psychiatric facility but was still engaging in self-harm and manipulating hospital staff.   James has previously spent many years in solitary confinement.

• A transgender teenage girl has been placed in de facto solitary confinement in a Connecticut adult prison, despite the fact that she faces no criminal charges.  A rarely-used statute in the state enables the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place juveniles in adult prisons if they prove they cannot care for the youth anywhere else.

•  Vice featured a piece about Mahdi Hashi, the 24-year old terror suspect currently held in pre-trial solitary confinement at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.  In 2012, Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship, held for months in a Djibouti prison, then rendered to the United States and indicted on federal charges.

• The Colorado Senate has passed a bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement for individuals with mental illness. The state’s House will now consider the bill’s passage.

•  The New York Times covered the conditions of confinement endured by Boston bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  He is currently held in pre-trial solitary confinement and is further bound by extremely restrictive Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).

•  An individual incarcerated in an Alabama prison alleges that he has spent the last four months in solitary confinement in retaliation for organizing an inmate work strike.  Speaking to reporters using a contraband phone, Melvin Ray described the conditions on the inside as “hell on Earth” and condemned a “systematic operation” that allows private manufacturing industries to utilize the prison’s low-wage labor.

•  A federally funded watchdog group empowered to investigative complaints about the mistreatment of people with disabilities has launched an investigation into abuses at Bridgewater State Hospital.  Individuals with mental illness at the medium-security prison have allegedly been put into physical restraints and isolation cells in violation of state law and a court order.

•  Writing in Aeon, philosopher Lisa Guenther uses phenomenology to explore how the extensive use of solitary confinement across the United States affects those of us living on the outside.  She writes, Solitary confinement is most clearly and immediately a form of violence against the experienced world of the prisoner. But if our ‘here’ is intertwined with their ‘there’, it cannot help but affect our own capacities to see, hear, and make sense of our lives.”

•   The Post and Courier has published an investigation into the placement of people with mental illness in South Carolina’s Special Management Units.  Across the state, “nearly 1,700 prisoners were held in segregation units as of last week, including 473 classified as mentally ill.”

The post Seven Days in Solitary [4/20/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: Double Celling

Solitary Watch - Wed, 04/16/2014 - 16:07

The following piece was jointly written by Five Mualimm-ak and Shaquille Mualimm-ak, who are father and son. Five Mualimm-ak is now a prison reform activist and director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. While incarcerated in New York State prisons, he spent five years in solitary confinement for nonviolent disciplinary infractions, and has written previously about its effects on him. Here, both father and son describe the effects that the years of separation and isolation had on their relationship. Shaquille grew up with little contact with his father, since individuals in disciplinary segregation in New York are most often denied visits and phone calls.  

The title of the piece refers to the practice, common in New York and many other states, of locking down two people in a cell together for 23 hours a day–a form of extreme isolation that many describe as worse than solitary confinement. Here it suggests the idea that isolation affects not only prisoners, but also their families–that loved ones also “do time” in solitary.  –Jean Casella

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

[Five] During my time of incarceration, I always stood tall and strong. I was sure of my innocence and was determined to battle those charges to the end. I imagined myself one day being vindicated, and when that day came I knew I would fight back against a system that had wrongfully imprisoned me, and then tortured me with years in solitary confinement.

I would one day leave that tiny cell that had grown to be my only landscape. So familiar were those walls that even closing my eyes could not erase the sight burned into my retina. Trapped there 23 hours a day, week in, week out, month after month of endless hollow chatter that I could never get out of my head , the distant conversations of muffled voices. I cannot remember when I started talking to myself but soon even that began driving me insane. I would one day not feel trapped like a caged animal–though unlike me, caged animals have rights and people who protect them from abuse and intentional harm.

I would one day see my son. I could tell from his letters that he really needed me. He was having to face the world alone and without me there to be by his side. I lost the ability to focus on the exact details of his face, and then my thoughts would drift to: Who is there for him? Who walks him to school? Who is making sure he is eating right? I hope he knows diabetes run in our family. I would reread his letters to me a thousand times, but they brought no ease to the pain of missing my child.

Even though I used the word “I” to describe my experience inside, it wasn’t until I met the child, now a man whom I call my son, that I realized I was never sentenced alone. Throughout my time I was double celled. I was locked away and out of his life, but still we were both trapped in this perpetual cycle of distance. Beyond those walls topped with razor wire, beyond the guard tower with armed men waiting to shoot down any attempts to escape this world inside of a bigger world–there was my creation, my young son, whom I couldn’t reach, and in some ways still can’t. Yet I’ve learned that he, in fact, was isolated from me and at the same time sentenced to be mentally confined with me for over 1,825 days…

1,825 days…

[Shaquille] 1,825 days I spent isolated from the man I call my father;  the man I was a spitting image of; the man who had the answers to problems I faced as a growing teen. Problems such as puberty, sex, hormonal rage, and many other things teenage boys typically go through were uncomfortable to talk to my mother about. I didn’t know how to bring those conversations up to her, and she didn’t know how to respond or what to say the seldom times I attempted it.

I needed my father at that crucial time in my life to show me how to be and act like a man. All around me at school I had friends with absent fathers or fathers who were also incarcerated and they ended up picking up drugs or ditching class because they didn’t have anyone to guide them and explain to them the importance of an education. Luckily I had a good mother who would steer me back in the right direction when I fell off course. But emotionally and mentally, I felt damaged by the lack of understanding she had for my teenage issues. A parent can only teach you but so much. I had to make a conscious decision to follow and apply the principles she taught me at home in my day to day life. I had to teach myself how to overcome the problems I faced as a poor black teen, and make good decisions when not in her presence.

The confinement of my father felt like I too was incarcerated, doing the time right along with him. Communication with him was difficult because of the circumstances he was under. I felt angry. I was pissed off at the world, and I knew that a lot of my minority peers were too, because they were in the same boat as me. A lot of them ended up getting caught up in the vicious cycle of repeating their incarcerated parent’s crime or something similar to it.

Solitary confinement not only kept my father locked in a box, but it kept him locked out of my life. It’s not hard to see that this system of ‘justice’ is corrupted when we are aware of the psychological effects that locking a parent out of the life of a growing child can have on the mind of that child. Even though I was physically free, mentally I was trapped in a 6×9 cell, isolated from my parent, the only man in my life, and locked into a sentence of solitude. As much as I stated “I,” it was more like were both doing time.

The post Voices from Solitary: Double Celling appeared first on Solitary Watch.

UN Investigator Says Long-Term Solitary Confinement in New York State Prisons Is Torture

Solitary Watch - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 12:06

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez has concluded that the state of New York violated the rights of three incarcerated men “to be free from torture” by locking them up them in long-term solitary confinement.  The findings, which were submitted to the UN Human Rights Council last month, were published alongside similar “observations” on the human rights practices of nearly 70 other countries. The Special Rapporteur is appointed by the Human Rights Council to serve as the UN’s chief expert and investigator on nations’ use of “torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”

The three individuals named in the report are William “Billy” Blake, Stephan Poole, and Kenneth Wright. According to Méndez:

Mr. William Blake has been incarcerated in a SHU, held in a barren concrete cell with no furnishings other than a steel bed frame for 25 consecutive years. Mr. Stephan Poole received a sentence of 36 months in the SHU for allegedly planning an escape. In the eight years and nine months prior, he had allegedly received no reports of misbehavior. Mr. Poole has reportedly accumulated additional lengthy SHU sentences for non-violent prison infractions, including refusing to return a food tray. He has allegedly developed insomnia and paranoia and has become increasingly anti-social as a result of his confinement. Mr. Kenneth Wright has been repeatedly confined to SHU as punishment for using marijuana, despite proactively seeking treatment from the Department of Corrections health service. Allegedly, after Mr. Wright’s latest infraction, authorities subjected him to six additional months in SHU and failed to take steps to assess his medical condition and provide necessary treatment. It is reported that Mr. Wright has struggled with depression, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide during his time in SHU. In addition, isolation in the SHU changed his behavior: he became more aggressive and started talking to himself.

In a separate subsection of the document, the Special Rapporteur specifically examines the case of Blake, who is believed to have been held in solitary longer than anyone else in New York State. Méndez cites an earlier communication regarding Blake–to which he has yet received no reply from the U.S. government:

Mr. William Blake, 50 year old, [is] incarcerated at the Elmira Correctional Facility…It is alleged that he has at least 48 years remaining on his sentence, and does not know whether he will ever be released from Special housing units (SHU) because administrative segregation is indefinite in nature; New York state allegedly places no upper limit on the length of administrative segregation. It is reported that recreation consists of one hour in an empty space surrounded by concrete walls on three sides. DOCCS provides no exercise equipment. Furthermore, it is alleged that despite Mr. Blake’s repeated requests, DOCCS has not provided an anticipated date of release from administrative segregation. DOCCS has also refused to tell Mr. Blake how or if he can earn release from the SHU. In a 2009 review of Mr. Blake’s status, DOCCS included such statements in its reasoning: “His long sentence would be an incentive for him to attempt another escape, as his only reasonable means of gaining freedom.” But in a 2002 review, DOCCS recognized that neither Mr. Blake’s disciplinary history nor his history while in DOCCS custody, standing alone, justified his continued status in administrative segregation. Mr. Blake reported that he struggles daily to cope with the intense emotions and the depression that bears down on him as he reflects on his quarter-century in extreme isolation.”

In 2013, Solitary Watch published his essay about life in isolation, “A Sentence Worse Than Death.” In summing up, he wrote:

Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.

According to Méndez’s report, about 4,500 individuals are incarcerated in Special Housing Units (SHUs) across New York state, where they are “deprived of all meaningful human contact, including phone calls, recreational activities, or rehabilitation programs.” His findings constitute just the latest critique to be levied against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) for what is broadly seen as its excessive reliance on solitary and other forms of extreme isolation. The last two years have witnessed the release of several articles and reports have highlighted the problem, and the formation of a broad-based coalition, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement to oppose solitary in New York. In January, New York lawmakers introduced the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, and in February, the New York Civil Liberties Union reached an agreement in a lawsuit against DOCCS that protects youth, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations from being placed in “the box,” and calls for further study of the practice.

The Special Rapporteur closes the subsection on NY DOCCS by calling on state and federal officials “to undertake a prompt and independent investigation of the allegations of prolonged solitary confinement, leading to its immediate termination, and to provide full redress to the victims.”

Other American prison-related issues addressed in the report include conditions at ADX Florence and in California’s SHUs, the prolonged isolation of the “Angola 3” and alleged terrorist Ahmed Abu Ali, and the denial of medical treatment to now-released political prisoner Lynne Stewart.

The post UN Investigator Says Long-Term Solitary Confinement in New York State Prisons Is Torture appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [4/13/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 04/13/2014 - 14:51

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• A California judge has ruled that the state’s prisons violated the Constitution by using excess force against people with mental illness. State officials will now be required to make additional changes to use-of-force procedures and restrict the use of disciplinary segregation for this vulnerable population.

• A bill drafted last summer in the wake of California’s SHU hunger strikes has successfully passed through the Public Safety Committee by a 4-2 vote. If it becomes law, AB 1652 will sharply limit the number of offenses that can qualify someone for isolation, create a five-year maximum for time spent in the SHU, and end the practice of “gang validation.”  In These Times featured a Q&A with Tom Ammiano, the Assembly member who introduced the bill.

• Seven guards at Taylorsville prison in North Carolina have been let go as a result of an ongoing investigation into the death of a man incarcerated there. Michael Anthony Kerr, who was being held in solitary confinement when he died, had struggled with mental illness.

• The Treatment Advocacy Center has released a report, “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey,” including a detailed analysis of the use of solitary confinement.

• According to immigrant justice activists, Tacoma detention center has continued to retaliate against detainees that participated in a recent hunger strike by placing them in isolation. Several prisoners at the SHU at Honolulu’s Federal Detention Center are allegedly also on hunger strike.

• In Colorado, a bill that would prohibit the placement of people with mental illness in solitary confinement has received initial bipartisan support.

• The Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture has written an open letter  in The Huffington Post to Former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., urging him do more to challenge the use of solitary confinement. Jackson spent less than a week in isolation after providing know-your-rights trainings to fellow prisoners.

• An attorney for the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) has warned that there will be “real consequences” if the state’s Supreme Court does not overturn a previous ruling mandating a higher threshold of evidence for placing someone in solitary. Appellant Franklin Higgins spent about two years in administrative segregation after being indicted by a grand jury, but he was eventually acquitted.

• A circuit court has rejected an appeal from Mark McAdams, currently in long-term administrative segregation in Wyoming, after finding that the conditions on his unit were “not pleasant… [but] not extreme”, and thus did not constitute a breach of due process.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [4/13/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: “Mind Blowing Because I’m a Kid”

Solitary Watch - Mon, 04/07/2014 - 11:23

The following comes from Joe (pseudonym), a minor who has been incarcerated since last summer, held in solitary confinement for over six months. In his letter to Solitary Watch, he describes his life on 23-hour-a-day lockdown in a jail where he has no access to any rehabilitation or other programs, classes or church. He recounts in detail in his letter the conditions to which he is exposed on a daily basis; the jail is windowless, without sunlight or fresh air. Joe talks about a “waiver,” by which, in this case, he means going before a judge, who, considering his age, will order he be treated as a minor.

Following Joe’s letter is an “inventory of grievances” he prepared regarding the conditions he endures. His list states that, in this jail, which he describes as hot and filthy, he is on some days denied his hour out, refused any sort of mental health services, and is provided with no opportunities for outside recreation. He writes, “Experiences like this, I promise you, I am never locking up an animal or anything living in a box, tank, or cage.” –Lisa Dawson


Waking up almost every day at around 2 or 3 am, the first thing I see is the wall my bed is connected to. When I see this, I sigh and say, “I’m still here.” Another day, is the only way I can put this without actually trying to calculate my last days. Oh, by the way, it’s 23/1 lockdown where I am housed. That’s the best they have for juveniles. I’ve been on lockdown for 7-1/2 months and counting. How do I do it? The strength of my almighty Father God, the support from my loved ones, and the determination to become something great. I can help other kids in my position.

I don’t get any programs, school classes, or church, because I’m 17. Crazy, right? Well if you think that’s crazy, check this out: the location in the jail I am housed in, there’s no sunlight, no windows, no fresh air, and no outside rec. The only times I get to see the sun is on court dates (for about 10 minutes, altogether).

It’s funny, because a lot of adults, grown men, who come in and out of jail/prison ask me, a 17 year old kid, how I stay sane without my natural resources and on lockdown. “It is what it is,” is usually what I tell them.

Every day I’m in here, I try to plan my hour out of the cell: who am I going to call, how long will the call be, how long can I walk around, and how long will my shower take. Even when I get back to my cell, I plan: how long should I read this book, how long should I study the books a friend gave me, how long should I spend writing my life stories, how long will I draw, etc. If you try to read all day, you’re setting yourself up for failure, because once you’ve finished the book(s), you have absolutely nothing to keep you occupied, and you slowly lose your mind. Many people would say sleep, ha! You can only sleep so much, and if you do sleep all day, the next day is going to be a long 23 hours for you.

It’s amazing how the jail is getting away with this. Mind blowing, really, because I’m a kid, surviving without my daily needs ever day, while some adults can’t even do this for one week.

So, I was arrested on August 13, 2013. My first waiver hearing was January 6, 2014. No one was ready, so it was postponed. Okay, cool. Another two months on lockdown; you can imagine my excitement. So the next waiver hearing is March 24, 2014. Now the excuse is that the schedule was too packed in the courtroom to get to my case. Mind you, I was sitting in the courtroom for at least 45 minutes before the Judge came in. My public defender said, “You’re getting postponed.” Again. Okay, now I’m immediately pissed, but I can’t show it, so I’m clenching my jaw so hard I nearly draw blood. Then, to add insult to injury, he says that the next hearing date is June 11, 2014. Okay….pause….let me rephrase that. Got here August 13, 2013, been trying to get waived down, first hearing date January 6, 2014 is postponed, next date March 24, 2014 is postponed, and the next date, June 11, 2014 is yet to come, but keep this in mind – I turn 18 on July 17, 2014. Now let me ask you, do you see what they’re trying to do? They’re trying to wait until I’m 18 so they can say, “He’s 18. We can’t waive him down” or whatever.

Yeah, but back to the jail. They open, scan, and reseal outgoing mail, and, of course, the same for incoming mail. Then, for visiting, you get one 30-minute visit per week, and depending on who’s working that day, you might not get your entire 30 minutes.

Next up, the medical staff. I had heart surgery when I was an infant, tricuspid artesia was the name of the operation. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had to take medicine. I take Bayer aspirin and Enalpril daily, to keep my blood thin through my veins and arteries. So, for about 2-1/2 months, I wasn’t getting them here. I asked about it almost daily, and I always got the “I’ll check” response. Then one day, I suffered from a really bad head and stomach pain, and had to go to medical. After we talked about what was wrong, they asked if I took meds (should have known the answer to that; they’re medical). I told them I was supposed to be taking my heart meds, and when she pulled the charts, she said, “Oh well. No one renewed the prescription for 2 months. Don’t worry; we’ll renew it”. All I could say was wow.

Next subject, my cell. The worst part about this cell is the dust. There’s two vents in here, one that blows dirty air and one that circulates the air poorly. There’s so much dust in the vents, if I tap on them, I damn near have an asthma attack..

Experiences like this, I promise you, I am never locking up an animal or anything living in a box, tank, or cage.

All in all, this is my world at this point in my life. I deal with it every day. This all for a kid whose 10th grade classes consisted of honors English 10, AP world history, French III, Spanish I, trigonometry, Honors chemistry, dance, Honors biology, and foundations of technology. It is what it is. I just have to stay strong and live my life to the fullest; and as of now, that’s reading and increasing my English and writing attributes. This and more, from Americas Secrets Exposed. Good day, citizens.

Inventory of Grievances

• Terrible medical staff (I can elaborate on this – boys given the wrong medications, not given needed medications, etc.)
• 23/1 lockdown
• Juveniles are not allowed razors for shaving; have to use head clippers
• No education until you are 18
• No counseling or other programs until you are 18
• No church until you are 18
• Segregated from everything
• Get denied phone time
• Some days, they don’t pull me out for my hour
• “Going off” is the only way to get something
• Because I’m young, they don’t take me seriously
• Had to have my people spend money for educational books, because the jail doesn’t provide them
• Librarian rarely comes; if I try to keep extra books, they take them
• When you put in a slip to speak to someone, it goes unanswered
• No exercise equipment or outdoor rec
• No sunlight
• No fresh air
• They never clean the vents
• Because we are over the laundry room, we get fumes that make you dizzy
• Supervisors that “don’t do shit”
• They lose/almost lose possessions
• They open court mail before they are in front of me
• The lights never go out
• We go to court, sit in the bullpen, and visit with adults, and we are housed with adults, but we can’t be out with them
• No fruit whatsoever
• When I wash my clothes, they always come back damp
• T-Block is the dustiest place in the jail
• Also used as the intake area – people come in here straight off the streets, coughing and throwing up
• Always hot
• Gave me a job, but never let me out to do it
• Because I am locked down, I had to start taking anxiety pills (this is true for many of the boys)
• They hold my mail
• They give me pills I don’t need, and for almost 2 months, I wasn’t getting pills I need (medication for a heart condition)
• I had to use the same contact lens solution for almost 3 weeks, even though I kept asking for more of the solution my family had brought in.
• Sometimes they cut my hour short (time out of the cell)
• The boy who does not speak English is routinely skipped over for time out of his cell, and they don’t give him anything (I am hoping to get a list from him)
• Maintenance never fixes anything

The post Voices from Solitary: “Mind Blowing Because I’m a Kid” appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [4/7/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 04/06/2014 - 22:27

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• Home Secretary Theresa May is again pressing the British High Court to allow the extradition of Haroon Aswat to the United States.  Last year, the European Court of Human Rights blocked Aswat’s extradition, ruling that he should be protected against the possibility of being placed in long-term isolation because of his mental illness.  

Democracy Now ran a long segment on solitary confinement, which featured a survivor of solitary, a family member of someone who died on the inside, and several others.

The New York Times posted an article and a short video about Joseph Ponte, the newly appointed correction commissioner of New York City. At his previous post overseeing Maine’s state prisons, Ponte significantly reduced the numbers of people placed in solitary.  

• In this month’s issue of the COBA magazine, members of the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association encourage readers not to “believe the hype” that solitary confinement in NYC’s jails constitutes abuse. COBA President Norman Seabrook has criticized the appointment of Joseph Ponte, claiming that Ponte’s position on solitary will endanger the lives of prison guards.

The Washington Post published an Op-Ed by Mary Buser, formerly the assistant chief of mental health on Riker’s Island: “Time and again, I felt that this [solitary confinement] had all the earmarks of torture. But I brushed the word from my mind, reminding myself that I lived in a civilized country that prohibits such things. Besides, the occupants of these cells had done something to warrant this punishment…Yet no matter how hard I tried to rationalize it, I knew in my heart that something was very wrong.”

• The editorial staff at The Baltimore Sun called on Maryland legislators to pass a bill mandating an independent investigation into the state’s use of solitary confinement.

• Mother Jones reported on two on-going lawsuits that challenge conditions on the inside: in the first lawsuit, the Justice Department alleges that Ohio has excessively subjected children with mental illness to solitary confinement; in the other lawsuit, a disability rights advocacy group claims that Montana violated the constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” by placing individuals with mental illness in extreme isolation for months and years at a time.

• Writing in The Portland Phoenix, Lance Tapley explores the criminalization of those with mental illness, and the role solitary confinement plays in this process.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [4/7/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: Unnatural Disaster

Solitary Watch - Sat, 04/05/2014 - 08:40

This piece was written by Tewhan Butler, whose blog is featured on the site Live from Lockdown. A former Bloods leader, he is 11 years into a 30-year sentence in federal prison on RICO charges. Since beginning his sentence, Butler has been in and out of solitary confinement in a series of prisons. 

In 2010, Butler was placed in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the U.S. Penitentiary at Lewisburg. The federal Bureau of Prisons describes its SMUs as “non-punitive” units, for individuals who are deemed a threat in the general population or otherwise require “special management.” In the Lewisburg SMU, anywhere from one to three men are held in cells originally designed for a single person; they are locked down for 23 hours a day, with an hour of isolated exercise. 

Butler was released from the SMU after 20 months and spent time in two other federal prisons, where he worked, took college courses, and kept a clean disciplinary record. In October 2013, according to his account, he was accused of taking part in a fight, but was cleared by a subsequent investigation. Nevertheless, in December he was again “referred” to the SMU, and he landed back at USP Lewisburg. In the following piece, he describes the feeling of  being back in solitary confinement.  —Jean Casella

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

I thought about life and dreamed of death. I awoke chilled, sweating uncontrollably. My eyes were open though nothing could be seen. Darkness everywhere. I heard ghost-like murmurs. My train of though was jaded. To my self I asked, “Where am I?”

There was something about this place I knew, although this place appeared as nothing greater than the middle of nowhere. Just yesterday, I felt alive. Today, I find it difficult to breathe; suffocating, escaping hope. I’ve been here before, yet the pain of it all feels more intense. The walls seem to be closer. The dungeon darker. Here, it remains hot as hell.

No one can save me, so I die slow without a chance of resurrection.

My surroundings know not of calm, neither before or after the storm. My world has been snatched. Confusion clouds my mind. I stand in the midst of an unnatural disaster. With all my might I hold on. Thus, insanity attempts to take me under like raging waters. Drowning, is this the way death feels?

Buried alive. My cell nailed shut. Rigor mortis has already begun to settle in. My pulse slows. My being is near frozen. Anywhere but here. In the vicinity of this cemented burial site there is no slow singing and flower bringing; Only iron against iron, deteriorating flesh.

This was never a dream, only my reality.

Please be advised, I have been relocated to USP Lewisburg’s Special Management Unit (SMU) program. 23 and 1 for the next eighteen to twenty-four months. Tewhan Butler 26852-050 USP Lewisburg PO Box 1000 Lewisburg, PA 17837

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Immigrant Hunger Strikers Placed in Solitary Confinement at Federal Detention Center

Solitary Watch - Fri, 04/04/2014 - 14:15

Nearly a month ago, at least 750 immigrant detainees at the federal government’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, went on hunger strike. The strike included about half the detainees at the 1,500-bed facility, which is run by the GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison contractor. Individuals are held at the detention center pending investigation for possible deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

According to participants, the hunger strikers were protesting the national policy of mass deportation, as well as their conditions, food, and low pay received for work they perform at the detention center. Eventually, most of the strikers resumed eating, but on March 24, a smaller group began a second hunger strike.

Three days later, ICE began placing these hunger strikers in solitary confinement, where they are isolated for at least 23 hours a day and deprived of all contact with other detainees. According to a lawsuit filed yesterday in Federal District Court in Tacoma by the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services:

The Plaintiffs represented by ACLU-WA and CLS were placed in solitary confinement after corrections officers entered their living area and invited approximately 20 detainees to meet with an assistant warden to discuss their reasons for engaging in a hunger strike. The Plaintiffs and other detainees who volunteered to attend the meeting were immediately placed in handcuffs and taken to individual isolation cells. Plaintiffs were not told why they were placed in solitary confinement nor how long they would have to live in isolation.

The form of solitary confinement used by ICE, administrative segregation, does not require due process because it is supposed to be non-punitive. However, it appears that ICE’s placement of Plaintiffs and other detainees in administrative segregation is in fact punishment and retaliation for engaging in constitutionally protected free speech activities.

The ACLU and CLS are seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prohibit ICE from retaliating against the hunger strikers, whom they say are engaging in a peaceful protest and are protected by the First Amendment.

There is some precedent for immigrant detainees staging hunger strikes to protest conditions–and being placed in solitary in retaliation. A 2012 report by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights described the widespread use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention.

The post Immigrant Hunger Strikers Placed in Solitary Confinement at Federal Detention Center appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: A Day in the Life, Part V

Solitary Watch - Mon, 03/31/2014 - 10:27

This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).

The following piece presents the artwork of a man who says he was brutally and repeatedly tortured by guards at an unnamed correctional facility, where he was held in isolation in a segregation unit in 2011. The drawings depict the savage treatment to which he was subjected for a period of eight days, during which time he claims to have been strip searched and unnecessarily restrained 170 times, or every hour. The author says he was targeted for this treatment because he had been convicted of a sex offense. Each drawing contains a caption paraphrased from applicable sections of the prison’s procedural manual on cell extractions. 

The drawings come to Solitary Watch from Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC), a non-profit organization based in California committed to challenging mass incarceration by “building action networks and materials that expose the continuing neglect and outright torture of more than 2 million people imprisoned within the USA.” –Lisa Dawson


Click to view slideshow.

The post Voices from Solitary: A Day in the Life, Part V appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [3/30/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 03/30/2014 - 19:39

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• For the first time in at least a decade, a guard at Rikers Island has been arrested in relation to a death in custody and charged with violating the prisoner’s civil rights.  In 2012, 25-year-old Jason Echevarria swallowed a packet of detergent while on a solitary confinement unit for people with mental illness; he died several hours later.  Captain Terrence Pendergrass, who allegedly refused to allow more inexperienced guards to call medical staff, appeared in federal court on Monday and was released on bond.

• After the recent 6.9 earthquake in Eureka, California, officials at Pelican Bay State Prison opted to immediately enhance prison security rather than focus on the physical safety of those locked up.  Writing in The San Francisco Bay View, Joe A’Jene Valentine describes feeling the earthquake, then fearing the concrete slabs around him might collapse:  “…the profoundly indifferent psychology of our captors was blatantly shown by the fact that all of the cage doors were immediately double locked! The message was most clear: ‘Your safety is not hardly our priority.’ I thought aloud: ‘Our lives don’t mean sh–!’”

PBS has released a preview of its upcoming investigation into solitary confinement, entitled “Solitary Nation.”

• California has opened public response period for the proposed Security Threat Group / Step Down Program.  These regulations will govern how individuals are placed into and released from California’s Secure Housing Units.

• A US Army veteran currently imprisoned at an immigration detention center in Washington state told Democracy Now that he has been placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for his activism on the inside.  His letter calling for a work stoppage was intercepted by staff.  Truth-Out reported that several detainees on a hunger strike at the Joe Corley Detention Facility in Conroe, Texas endured similarly retaliatory measures.

• Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring is seeking to overturn a recent court ruling in which the procedures governing conditions on confinement on death row were found to be unconstitutional.  Last fall, US District Judge Leonie Brinkema found that Virginia had violated the due process rights of the condemned by placing them in solitary confinement solely on the basis of their sentence.  [Solitary Watch previously reported on Judge Brinkema’s ruling here.]

The post Seven Days in Solitary [3/30/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Severely Disabled Man Sues New York State Prisons for Neglect, Abuse

Solitary Watch - Thu, 03/27/2014 - 10:11

Five Points Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.

At a time when New York State is winning praise for removing vulnerable people from solitary confinement in its prisons, the case of Mark Gizewski offers a sobering counterpoint.

Although he suffers from extreme physical disabilities and lives with constant pain, Gizewski has been in and out of solitary confinement for various prison rule violations. Now, he is suing the state in federal court, asserting that he has suffered medical neglect and physical abuse while held in New York’s prison system.

Gizewski ‘s disabilities result from him being what is colloquially called a “Thalidomide baby.” In 1960, while pregnant, Gizewski’s mother took the drug Thalidomide, which at the time was widely prescribed throughout the world for morning sickness. As a consequence of Thalidomide use, at least 12,000 children were born with birth defects, most of them in Europe. (In the United States, the number reached only to dozens, because one conscientious scientist at the FDA, Frances Kelsey, refused to approve the drug without further research.)

Like most Thalidomide victims, Mark Gizewski has severely deformed limbs. He was born with one leg much shorter than the other. His arms are also two different lengths, with club hands–the right with four fingers, the left with three. He has a hip deformity and has had one shoulder replaced. He also has dwarfism, scoliosis of the spine, and an anal deformity. Like many Thalidomide babies, he was institutionalized in his early years, and hospitalized afterwards for a series of surgeries, including amputation of his right leg at the age of nine.

Now 54 years old, Gizewski was most recently convicted of third-degree attempted criminal possession of a weapon, which carried a relatively short sentence. But the conviction also triggered parole violations on earlier sentences for robbery and drug use, for which he had received six years to life–so unless paroled, he could remain in prison indefinitely. Gizewski was denied parole in 2010, and again earlier this year.

As a victim of Thalidomide, Gizewski receives monetary support from the Thalidomide Trust in the UK, and has used these funds to pay attorneys and launch a civil suit against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the warden, a physician, and a corrections officer at Five Points Correctional Facility, where he was sent in 2012. The suit claims violations of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bans discrimination against disabled persons.

According to the complaint filed in February 2014 in U.S. District Court in upstate New York, Gizewski’s disabilities are “severe, debilitating, and degenerative in nature.” The complaint alleges that Gizewski was repeatedly denied painkillers that he had received at other prisons to control the pain in his back and limbs, and instead given Tylenol.

Gizewski has claimed that the foot on his prosthetic leg was broken, and that it was too large to maneuver in his cell. He asked that it be repaired; the request was ignored. He was given a wheelchair, but denied a request for a lightweight wheelchair that would accommodate his upper-body disabilities. He could not get out into the prison yard because the prison was not equipped with a wheelchair ramp. Gizewski says he asked for some means of access, but it was never provided.

When Gizewski asked for medicine for a persistent earache, he contends, his guards ignored his request. Finally they gave him some ear drops, but because of his clubbed hands, Gizewski could not get the drops into his ear.  He says the prison administration refused to give him the brush he needs in order to be able to clean himself after using the toilet, and another to clean his body in the shower. Ultimately, they gave him a brush that he was supposed to use for both purposes. He also requested, but was never given, a “grabber” tool that he needed to reach things in his cell.

Cheryl Kates-Benman, one of Mark Gizewski’s attorneys, told Solitary Watch that her client began receiving a series of disciplinary tickets in retaliation once he began complaining about the lack of accommodation, and was placed in solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). The prison claimed that Gizewski assaulted a nurse who was giving out medication, but Kates-Benman says she obtained video footage which showed that at the specified time of the assault, the nurse was in the company of a corrections officer, calmly walking along doling out pills. There was no sign of any assault.  On another occasion Gizewski was accused of using drugs while in the SHU–something that is virtually impossible without the connivance of corrections staff. Kates-Benman suspects a set up.

On January 4, according to the federal complaint, “The Corrections Officer at Five Points injured Plaintiff by pushing him out of the wheelchair. As a result, Plaintiff’s elbow was shattered in five (5) different places…The Corrections Officer, with extreme force, proceeded to kick Plaintiff in the abdomen, as a result of which, Mr. Gizewski temporarily lost consciousness and suffered from urinary incontinence. The Corrections Officer later threatened Mr. Gizewski with future bodily harm if he told anyone about what transpired.”

After this incident, Gizewski was transferred from Five Points to Walsh Medical Center, located at nearby Mohawk Correctional Facility, where he is in a secure infirmary cell–in effect, in medical solitary.

The corrections officer accused of injuring Gizewski has not been disciplined, and the state has not yet filed an answer to the complaint. Solitary Watch’s request for comment to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision had received no response at the time of this publication.

The post Severely Disabled Man Sues New York State Prisons for Neglect, Abuse appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: A Day in the Life, Part IV

Solitary Watch - Tue, 03/25/2014 - 11:46

Zulu holding the autobiography of Angola Three member Robert Hillary King

The following comes from Kenny Zulu Whitmore, a political prisoner and former member of the Black Panther Party at Angola correctional facility in Louisiana, who has spent a total of 35 years in Closed Cell Restriction, 28 of which have been served consecutively.

In his piece, Zulu describes the inhumane conditions to which he has been subjected in near sensory deprivation for the last three-and-a-half decades. Zulu welcomes letters from supporters and can be reached by writing Kenny Zulu Whitmore, 86468 D-Hawk/CCR-4L, Lousiana State Prison, Angola, LA 70712 or on his blog at  –Lisa Dawson


My Prolonged Isolation of 35 Years on Angola’s CCR, the equivalent of solitary confinement

I have been held in CCR for a total of 35 years, 28 years of which have been consecutive. For over threedecades, I have been held in a 6×9’ cell, but because of the bunk bed on one wall and the lavatory-washbasin-combination toilet on the back wall, I have only 4×3 feet of actual floor space to live in, 24/7. This has been my existence for 35 years, with the exception of one hour a day when I am given an hour on the tier to shower, exercise or just walk the hall. Three days a week, weather permitting, I am also placed in full restraints: waist chain, handcuffs and leg irons. We are permitted to wear a jump suit with only boxers and a T-shirt, not fitting considering the cold winter season. During these cold winter months, for example, there are only nine (9) coats for 52 men, some of whom exercise in the coat, while others blow their noses on the sleeves of the coat, etc. So you either wear this outwear as is or you refuse your hour out for recreation.

In the Closed Cell Restrictive Unit, the cells are both poorly lighted and ventilated, causing various health problems. Many men held on CCR wear prescription glasses, because of the lack of light in the cell. Inside the cell itself, you have a vision span of only 11 feet because you cannot see out of the small window.

During the hot summer months, the outdated ventilation system causes the temperatures in the cells to reach 100-110 degrees, resulting in stress and hypertension. I am now on two different kinds of high blood pressure medications (Carzaar, Novac). My eyesight has greatly deteriorated. That has nothing to do with age, as I have a degenerative muscle in my left eye, which causes it to involuntarily move, resulting in double vision.

CCR is a non-punitive housing unit, but the men housed on CCR are prohibited from participating in any of the educational and religious programs. We are not allowed to learn meaningful job skills that could be transferred in the event of re-entry.

After 35 years in CCR solitary confinement, my visitors have been restricted to only immediate family. I can no longer have visits with my nieces, nephews, cousins or friends. Why else would this restriction be put in place besides to punish prisoners? When visitation is such a vital tool in the rehabilitation process, inmate visits with family and friends helps to prepare one to re-enter society. This visiting restriction that has been in place for two years only creates undue hardship for the inmates, their families and friends. There is no penological reason that justifies this restriction that “only applies to the 100 men on Angola’s CCR/solitary confinement” and no other inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Inmates here at Camp-D CCR are punished and retaliated against when we speak out against the violation of our rights under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Look what happened to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, and what is happening to Albert Woodfox right now with the degrading, humiliating body cavity searches which he endures up to six times a day. Only because he questioned why he has been denied contact visitation with family and friends.

No doubt, I too will be retaliated against once this article becomes public knowledge, but sacrifices must be made to bring about change. The U.S. is a democratic society today because of those like Crispus Attucks , who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“Freedom ain’t never been free.” –Kenny Zulu Whitmore

The post Voices from Solitary: A Day in the Life, Part IV appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [3/23/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 03/23/2014 - 18:31

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• Jerome Murdough, a 56-year-old man arrested on trespassing, died last month on Rikers Island after his cell overheated to at least 100 degrees.  Murdough was in isolation on the newly opened mental health units.  His death was first covered by AP.

• In his most recent piece, Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Cole Goins responded to reports of surging violence in NYC’s jails by exploring an important question: “Is solitary confinement contributing to rise in violence on Rikers Island?”

• The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have jointly submitted a plan to the courts to fix ongoing problems at the state’s juvenile detention centers, part of an ongoing settlement of an ACLU lawsuit filed in 2012.  The proposal would ban the use of solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.

• A Texas State Senator has warned Department of Criminal Justice officials that it must do more to curb the state’s use of administrative segregation – or risk intervention from a federal judge when and if a civil rights suit is filed.  There are more than 7,100 individuals in solitary confinement in Texas state prisons.

• California State Senator Loni Hancock introduced legislation to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. Among other things, the bill would prohibit the placement of people with mental illness in solitary confinement and require the Office of Inspector General to conduct regular reviews of all individuals serving indeterminate SHU terms.

• In their latest piece, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange examine the “growing number of states moving away from juvenile solitary confinement”.

• Writing for VICE, Annie Waldman explores America’s “Little Guantanamos” – the two Communication Management Units (CMUs) currently operating out of federal prisons. About 70% of those placed in CMUs are Muslim.  People incarcerated in CMUs face very strict limitations on their communication with the outside world, so much so that the units have been called an “experiment in social isolation” by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

• Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – three Americans who endured many months of solitary confinement in Iran after being captured hiking near the Iraq-Iran border – have released a memoir detailing their experiences, “A Sliver of Light”.  The team was interviewed by several outlets, including The Guardian, MSNCB and Democracy Now, and spoke out not only about their own experiences but the plight faced by the tens of thousands of individuals held in solitary confinement across the United States.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [3/23/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: TV Death Row

Solitary Watch - Fri, 03/21/2014 - 12:02

Talha Ahsan’s family in their London home.

For World Poetry Day, we feature a poem by Talha Ahsan, who is being held in pretrial solitary confinement in Northern Correctional Facility, a supermax prison in Connecticut.

A British poet and translator, Ahsan was arrested at his family home in London in 2006 at the request of the United States government under the highly controversial US-UK Extradition Act of 2003. Ahsan, who had never set foot in the United States, was accused of working with a series of allegedly terrorism-related Islamic websites, one of which was briefly hosted  on a U.S. server.

Ahsan was held in high-security British prisons for six years without trial or charge while his extradition was fought in the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that Ahsan, who has Asberger Syndrome, was headed for a life of torture in U.S. supermax prisons. The ECHR eventually declined to block the extradition, and Ahsan was brought to the United States in October of 2012. In December 2013, after more than a year in solitary, Ahsan entered into a plea bargain on charges of providing material support to terrorists; he currently awaits sentencing.

Talha Ahsan is a translator of Arabic poetry and an award-winning poet. His collection of poetry This Be the Answer: Poems from Prison was composed while he was incarcerated in the UK. The following poem, “TV Death Row,” was originally published in Socialist Lawyer and will appear in a forthcoming collection of poetry with an introduction by Gareth Peirce. It was written in Northern Correctional, which also houses Connecticut’s death row. — Jean Casella

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


The universal call sign hollered from behind a cell door.


A reply with all the authenticity of a baseball cap worn backwards by an ageing celebrity. The inmates stand by the iron doors embedded with a two foot glass pane a few inches wide. They raise their voices through the gap at the sides. Every fifteen minutes a correctional officer will tour the tier. At night they flash torches upon prone bodies to inspect for the stipulated living breathing flesh as per directive. There is a pause in the conversation.

-You should get a TV, he continues.

-But I’m worried I’ll end up watching it all day and night.

-What’s wrong with that?

I laugh. He laughs with me. Then his laugh takes on a different tone and turns louder upon realisation my laughter was at the perceived but clearly unintended irony of his question.

In the housing block opposite is located Death Row. There are eleven of them. In 2012 the death penalty was repealed in Connecticut but any prior capital conviction remains. They await the outcome of cases to overturn their sentences. I asked my attorney once what they did all day. “Watch TV, ” he replied. There followed a moment of sunken despondency.

TV is a momento mori of candy floss and glitter. Those are just bones with a temporary fix of salmon-toned fresh skin. Those are just skulls grinning under cheerleader-blonde. Behind the glass, beyond the pores and bones, another goldfish bowl of a cell: dark, humid and pink if you sneaked a peek.

Amongst the whirring of blood, bald and barefoot, thoughts pace hands cuffed behind back. Between the two slits, a morsel descends the darkness of an alimentary canal.

-OK, I’ll think about it, I say.

I return to another slither of window to a world: a cut unhealed upon a cell wall. The skeletons of autumn queue for last rites kept in line by an indifferent wire fence. No appeal will be heard.

The post Voices from Solitary: TV Death Row appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Torture on Death Row: Court Rules Against Automatic Use of Solitary Confinement for the Condemned

Solitary Watch - Mon, 03/17/2014 - 07:00

Cell on Texas death row.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty itself does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet the treatment of the condemned is nonetheless subject to Eighth Amendment protections, as well as Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process.

In the past few years, this ironic legal reality has been the subject of a renewed national debate centering on execution methods. The European drug companies that U.S. states have historically relied on to provide the materials for lethal injections have refused to replenish supplies. As a result, states have developed new drug protocols, often implementing them without testing or research. Last month, Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for well over ten minutes before he finally died.

But at a recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, exoneree Damon Thibodeaux called attention to a different, rarely-discussed aspect of death row that he believes also constitutes “torture, pure and simple” – the conditions of confinement that people endure prior to execution:

“I spent my years at Angola, while my lawyers fought to prove my innocence, in a cell that measured about 8 feet by 10 feet. It had three solid walls all painted white, a cell door, a sink, a toilet, a desk and seat attached to a wall, and an iron bunk with a thin mattress. These four walls are your life. Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you. Mentally, you have to find some way to live as if you were not there. If you cannot do that, you will die a slow mental death and may actually wish for your physical death, so that you do not have to continue that existence. More than anything, solitary confinement is an existence without hope.”

Thibodeaux was exonerated after spending fifteen years on death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. While his story may be unusual, his experience of extreme isolation is standard for people facing execution.

A recent ruling, however, suggests that the federal courts may soon mandate higher due process protections for individuals sentenced to death. Last November, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema found in Prieto v. Clark that the state of Virginia had violated the Constitution by automatically placing individuals on death row in indefinite isolation.  In January, she rejected a request from state attorneys to delay the implementation of her ruling.

In her determination, Judge Brinkema describes what people on death row in Virginia must bear from the time of their sentencing to the time of their execution:

“Plaintiff’s conditions of confinement on death row are undeniably extreme and atypical of conditions in the general population units at [the prison]. He must remain alone in his cell for nearly 23 hours per day… The lights never go out in his cell, although they are scaled back during the overnight hours… Plaintiff is allowed just five hours of outdoor recreation per week…and that time is spent in another cell at best slightly larger than his living quarters… He otherwise has no ability to catch a glimpse of the sky because the window in his cell is a window in name only… Nor can he pass the time in the company of other inmates; plaintiff is deprived of most forms of human contact… His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials…”

As the judge outlines, those on death row are automatically and permanently placed in solitary confinement – forced to withstand particularly severe conditions purely as a consequence of their sentence.  This placement is functionally indefinite since it can take years, or even decades, before individuals exhaust their appeals and finally face execution.  (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, those executed in 2010 had spent an average of 14.8 years on death row).  By contrast, all others incarcerated in Virginia are assigned an initial security classification based on eight factors, including several unrelated to their sentences: their history of institutional violence, escape history, current age, etc.

The Court’s finding in Prieto v. Clark is that the automatic placement of death row prisoners in solitary confinement violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights, since they endure “uniquely severe” conditions without any kind of procedural protections or stopgap measures.

Judge Brinkeama concludes that the Virginia prison authorities have two options: either providing an individualized classification procedure for each person sentenced to execution, or altering conditions on death row “such that confinement there would no longer impose an atypical and significant hardship.”

The court’s ruling comes several months after the publication of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report that examined the conditions of confinement endured by those on death row. As the ACLU notes, this extreme isolation constitutes a “punishment on top of punishment”:

  • Cell size: Most common cell size is 8×10 feet (27% of prisoners), just a bit bigger than the size on an average bathroom.
  • Basic comfort: Beds provide in death row cells are made out of: Steel 60%; Concrete 13%; Steel with mattress 9%; Concrete with pad 6%; Metal 6%.
  • “Enforced idleness”: States that allow death inmates to exercise for one hour or less: 81%.
  • Social isolation: States with mandated no-contact visits for death row inmates: 67%.
  • Religious services: States that fail to offer religious services to death row prisoners: 62%.

At the Senate hearing on solitary confinement last month, Thibodeux told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that he had contemplated ending the appeals process – despite his innocence – in order to escape his extreme isolation:

“Fairly early during my confinement at Angola, I very seriously considered giving up my legal rights and letting the State execute me. I was at the point where I did not want to live like an animal in a cage for years on end, only to lose my case and then have the State kill me anyway. I thought it would be better to end my life as soon as I could and avoid the agony of life in solitary. Fortunately, my lawyer and friend, Denise LeBoeuf, convinced me that I would be exonerated and released someday, and she gave me hope to keep fighting and living.”

According to the NAACP’s most recent quarterly report on the death penalty, published last week, since the death penalty was reinstated 140 individuals – about 10% of those placed on death row – were executed after giving up their appeals. (See the Death Penalty Information Center for a complete list of these individuals and more comprehensive information about “volunteers.”)

Judge Brinkema’s ruling is significant since it accords at least minimal due process protections to those placed in solitary confinement, even the so-called “worst of the worst.” But calls to change the blanket use of isolation on death row have also emerged from outside the courts and the Senate subcommittee hearing. Last month, Texas’s largest correctional officers’ union called for low-risk individuals on death row to be housed with others, and recommended that state prison officials introduce privileges to those on death row, including work assignments and streaming television.

The post Torture on Death Row: Court Rules Against Automatic Use of Solitary Confinement for the Condemned appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [3/16/2014]

Solitary Watch - Sun, 03/16/2014 - 11:23

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• The United Nations Human Rights Committee held a two-day hearing to evaluate US compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and explicitly examined the extensive use of solitary confinement. Last fall the American Civil Liberties Union released a shadow report outlining how the US falls short of its obligations.

• Mayor Bill DeBlasio appointed Joseph Ponte as the next Commissioner for New York City’s Department of Correction. Under Ponte’s leadership, the state of Maine reduced its use of solitary confinement by two-thirds.

• The Bureau of Prisons opened a two-week period for the public to comment on the regulations governing Communication Management Units. The units, termed “an experiment in social isolation” by the Center for Constitutional Rights, are primarily populated by Muslims despite the fact that Muslims represent about 6 percent of the overall federal prison population.

• In Colorado, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously in favor of Bill 64, which would prohibit the state from placing individuals with serious mental illness in long term solitary confinement. The bill was supported by the ACLU, the state Department of Corrections and both local political parties.

• A story from the Medill News Service features solitary confinement survivor Brian Nelson, while a piece on Policy Mic features survivor Five Mualimm-ak.  Anthony Graves, who was exonerated after spending 12 years in solitary on Texas death row, spoke out on Texas Public Radio, and both Graves and Nelson were included in a long feature story on solitary on Truthout.

• The US Justice Department has asked a federal court to issue a restraining order against the Ohio Department of Youth Services, which would temporarily require them to stop placing boys with mental illness in solitary confinement. Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said, “The way in which Ohio uses seclusion to punish youth with mental health needs victimizes one of the most vulnerable groups in our society.”

The Sacramento Bee reported that after prison guards discovered someone hanging in his cell, they waited nearly four hours before cutting him down. David Scott Gillian was in administrative segregation at Pleasant Valley State Prison, about 200 miles south of Sacramento, when he killed himself.

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange released a long article examining the use of solitary confinement in New Jersey’s juvenile detention facilities.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [3/16/2014] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Funding Approved for Activation of ADX/USP Thomson, New Federal Supermax Prison

Solitary Watch - Fri, 03/14/2014 - 07:00

Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, IL (Photo:

Even as it touts new initiatives to reduce the number of people it holds in solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) continues to quietly make headway on the activation of Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois. If all proceeds as planned, Thomson will substantially increase the federal government’s capacity to hold individuals in extreme isolation — a fact that no one, these days, seems to want to talk about.

Yesterday, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and local Congress member Cheri Bustos announced that the BOP has committed $53.7 million in funding for fiscal year 2014 to retrofit and open Thomson. Of that funding, $10 million will be used for renovation, and $43.7 million will be used for equipment and staffing. “This is the news we’ve been waiting for,” Durbin said in a press release. “It’s a sure sign that work will begin soon in Thomson and  confirms, without a doubt, that the Obama Administration remains firmly committed to opening and operating Thomson prison.”

Thomson, the unoccupied prison that the federal government bought from the state of Illinois in 2012, was built between 1999 and 2001 but never opened. Dubbed early on “Gitmo North,” the facility was originally viewed by the Obama Administration as a possible future home for scores of terrorism suspects held by the U.S. at Guantánamo Bay military detention camp in Cuba. The press release put out yesterday by Durbin and Bustos called Thomson a “state-of-the-art, maximum-security prison,” but made no mention that it was slated to become, at least in part, a supermax.

As Solitary Watch reported last year, Thomson is slated to be an “Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary” (ADX/USP). Administrative Maximum is a security classification currently held only by ADX Florence in Colorado, where some 400 people live in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, in isolation so extreme that it has been challenged in a series of lawsuits and widely criticized as torture. The joint classification of Thomson as ADX/USP means that a portion of the new prison will also have a Maximum Security classification, which will include an SMU, or Special Management Unit, where individuals are also held in 23-hour lockdown, often with two or three people to a cell.

When asked by Solitary Watch last week for details on the prison’s design (specifically how many of each ADX and USP cells Thomson will contain) and funding, BOP spokesperson Chris Burke responded in an email, stating only that:

Thomson will be a high security prison holding inmates with various security needs. It has 1,600 cells and will help to alleviate crowding. The BOP is working with the Department of Justice and the OMB to develop the FY 2014 Spending Plan. Once complete, the Spending Plan will be submitted to Congress for approval. Until Congress provides the final approval, we will not be able to share the details of the plan.

When asked about the prison last year, Burke was more transparent about Thomson’s security levels, stating that “Thomson will be a high security prison holding inmates with various security needs, including SMU and ADX type inmates.”

Solitary Watch also asked why the BOP requires new supermax cells despite plans to reduce the number of people in solitary, and details on what measures were being taken to do so. Burke said that “high security facilities are currently 51% over rated capacity.”

Burke also stated that “for the past almost two years, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has focused on carefully reviewing, assessing, and refining our approach to restrictive housing to ensure that inmates are there for the right reasons and for an appropriate duration.” He listed a number “initiatives” designed to reduce “restricted housing,” including new tracking systems, a “secure mental health step down unit,” a “reintegration unit,” and a new “gang-free institution.”

Backing the opening of ADX/USP Thomson is the same Sen. Dick Durbin (D, IL) who has built a reputation challenging the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. In June 2012 he chaired the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Yet that same year, Durbin played a key role in the state of Illinois’ sale of Thomson to the federal government.

When asked by Solitary Watch about Durbin’s support of a new federal supermax, spokesperson Max Gleischman did not deny that Thomson would include ADX cells. He did not comment on the apparent contradiction in Durbin’s position, except to say that no one would be “housed in segregation unnecessarily.” In an email, Gleischman said:

Senator Durbin opposes the unnecessary use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, jails and detention centers and has been working to highlight consequences the misuse of solitary has on prisoner health and prison safety for years. Thomson prison will be a federal maximum security prison and will help elevate massive overcrowding within the Federal prison system. Senator Durbin will continue his work to ensure that all prisoners, whether in Thomson or elsewhere in the Federal system, are treated humanely and that no one is housed in segregation unnecessarily.

Durbin also included a brief statement about his position on Thomson in his opening remarks at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee’s second hearing on solitary confinement on February 25, 2014. Durbin began by calling solitary confinement “a human rights crisis we can’t ignore.” He also praised BOP director Charles Samuels for his efforts to reduce solitary confinement. Nonetheless, Durbin said, the “overcrowding crisis in federal prisons” was “one reason I’m working to open Thomson Correctional Center as a federal prison in my state. I look forward to working with the Bureau of Prisons to ensure that Thomson helps to alleviate overcrowding and that all prisoners held there are treated appropriately and humanely.”

Two days after the hearing, Durbin was urging President Barack Obama to fund the opening of Thomson for fiscal year 2015. Durbin was joined by his protégé U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17), who represents the district that holds Thomson prison. In a letter dated February 27, 2014, the pair writes:

We write today to respectfully request that you prioritize the activation of Illinois’ Thomson Correctional Center in your FY2015 budget proposal which is expected to be released on March 4, 2014. According to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the full activation of this long delayed facility should take two fiscal years (FY 2014 and FY 2015) and include about $25 million for construction and other related facility upgrades and approximately $170 million for staffing and equipment. The first installment of those funds should now be available as a result of the Fiscal Year 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act which was passed by Congress and signed into law by the President in January.

On Tuesday, March 4, the budget request of the U.S. government for FY 2015 was released, proposing $8.5 billion for prisons and detention “to maintain and secure federal prisons and detention facilities.” The budget request fact sheet is vague, offering few specifics on how the money will be spent. It does mention funds for “bringing online newly constructed or acquired prisons” but avoids naming them.

The FY 2015 Budget requests a total of $8.5 billion for federal prisons and detention. Of this amount, $6.9 billion is requested for the BOP and $1.6 billion is for the Federal Prisoner Detention (FPD) appropriation. In addition, the FY 2015 Budget proposes to rescind $122.0 million in prior year detention balances, which are available because the FY 2013 detention population was lower than projected. The FY 2015 Budget’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative also includes resources for the BOP for infrastructure and personnel to continue the process of bringing on-line newly completed or acquired prisons and thereby reduce prison overcrowding.

This breakdown is particularly obscure in comparison to the details contained in the FY 2014 budget request, which specifically references ADX/USP Thomson:

ADX USP Thomson, IL: $58.7 million and 1,158 positions (749 correctional officers) $15 million to renovate the Thomson Correctional Center for high security federal prison use. $43.7 million to begin activating ADX USP Thomson (2,100 beds) as an administrative-maximum high security facility. ADX USP Thomson is expected to reduce crowding in high security facilities from 59 percent by 43 percent by the end of FY 2015. There are no current services for this initiative.

Despite the new-found reluctance to provide details on Thomson’s security level, there is nothing to indicate that the BOP’s plans to open additional supermax cells at the new prison have changed. Nor does the BOP appear to have any doubts that it will obtain the required funding. When asked if there is a scheduled opening date for the Thomson, spokesperson Chris Burke said: “When funding is provided, it will take about 2 to 3 years to ramp up to full activation of the facility.”

The post Funding Approved for Activation of ADX/USP Thomson, New Federal Supermax Prison appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Private Prison Giant CCA Weighs in on Solitary Confinement

Solitary Watch - Wed, 03/12/2014 - 11:36

Photo: CCA

Presumably spurred by the growing attention to solitary confinement, Corrections Corporation of America has produced a promotional piece on how it is “strategically serving” those it places in solitary. The article, which appeared recently in the companies online publication InsideCCA, claims that the company is “Thinking Outside the Box” when it comes to the use of isolation in its prisons and detention centers.

CCA is the nation’s largest private prison contractor (or, as the company’s website puts it, “America’s leader in partnership corrections”) with nearly 100,000 beds in more than 60 facilities. No figures are available on how many individuals CCA holds in solitary confinement, but the company claims it employs “segregation” only as “a last resort.”

The article quotes Harley Lappin, the former head of the federal Bureau of Prisons who resigned following a DUI and quickly resurfaced as “chief corrections officer” at CCA.  ”During my time at both the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and at CCA, we advocated using segregation only for situations that warrant the need to separate someone from the general population…There’s been a concerted effort on the part of corrections administrators across the country – at CCA and elsewhere – to implement better practices and policies and reduce the number of inmates in segregation.” In fact, the number of individuals in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement grew during Lappin’s tenure at the BOP, to at least 12,000.

John Baxter, CCA’s vice president for health services, calls solitary “the last in a series of tools we have available to help [inmates] regain control of their escalating negative behavior.” The article acknowledges that CCA holds individuals with mental illness in solitary confinement, but claims it provides all the services they need. At Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana, for example:

While in segregation, offenders who have mental illnesses continue receiving special care; Mental Health staff check in with them on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, depending on the level of attention they need.

“The unit teams know inmates very well, and if an inmate misses his medication or if he’s asleep and supposed to be taking his medication, they remind him or wake him up,” [Assistant Warden Nicola] Walker explains.

And to make sure no needs go unnoticed, the facility holds weekly review hearings in which the entire classification team, the unit manager, chiefs and assistant wardens meet with each inmate in segregation and give them a chance to express any concerns they may have. Then the Mental Health team meets individually with those who express concerns.

The article includes a particularly disturbing photo, of an incarcerated man standing before a “Disciplinary Court” where five employees of a private, for-profit company decide whether to place him in solitary confinement, in conditions that federal courts have acknowledged as a significant deprivation of the liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The post Private Prison Giant CCA Weighs in on Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.

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