Prisoners Tortured Daily in New York State

This is an article in the February issue of Peace Newsletter, posted by the Syracuse Peace Council:

From the February 2013 PNL #821
by Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre

In March 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a near-total ban on solitary confinement. Juan Mendez stated that “solitary confinement itself can amount to … torture as defined in Article 1 of the Convention against Torture.” The cited article defines torture as “… any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person.” Mendez contends that after 15 days some psychological effects resulting from solitary confinement (also called isolation or segregation) are irreversible.

Mendez also specifically condemned US reliance on the practice, which is utilized in all sectors of the US detention system. From immigration detention centers to psychiatric institutions, military prisons to even juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement is a standard feature of the imprisoned landscape. And the nation’s penal system is no exception.

There are 45 “super-max” prisons in the US. A super-max is a prison facility wholly devoted to holding inmates in solitary confinement. 44 of these are state-run and the lone federal super-max is in Florence, CO. In 2000, the US Department of Justice estimated that an average of 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement at any one time.

Solitary in NYS

NYS is the home of two super-max prisons, Southport in Chemung County (789 beds) and Upstate in Franklin County (1,040 beds). Additionally, there are around 3,000 Special Housing Unit (SHU) beds dispersed among 37 other prisons in New York. A 2012 snapshot of the solitary confinement population found 402 inmates under 20 years old, 83 of them 18 or younger. 86% of the prisoners at Southport and Upstate are Black or Latino. Many have been diagnosed with mental illness before or after their arrival in isolation. LGBTQ prisoners are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory isolation across the detention spectrum.

[24 hours in solitary]
Inmates in solitary are permitted one hour per day of
“recreation” in an outdoor cage. Image: NYCLU & Amelia

Inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a small cell alone or in close quarters with one other person (a condition given the conflicted name “double solitary”). One hour per day is allowed for “outdoor recreation.” Prisoners may go in handcuffs to a caged area smaller even than their cell, where other inmates can be heard but not seen. Some inmates reported to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) that they declined recreation to avoid hearing the screams of other solitary inmates in the recreation cell.

Prisoners receive no training, work, or rehabilitation services and report insufficient access to medical and psychological care while in solitary confinement. No transitional services are available for those in solitary, even when inmates will be directly released from isolation. Despite the lack of services, SHUs and super-maxes are expensive to staff. NYS spends about $76 million each year to staff segregation units.

How does an inmate get to solitary?

Roughly 90% of placements in isolation are for disciplinary reasons, though solitary confinement can also be imposed if the inmate is perceived to be vulnerable or a threat to prison safety. The punitive system in NYS prisons allows each class of violation to be rated at varying levels of severity, granting corrections officials (COs) wide discretion as to the severity of the punishment. In fact every single rule violation in NYS prisons has the potential to be met with a solitary confinement sentence.

There is no limit to the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement. Once in isolation, an inmate’s sentence in the SHU can be extended to punish subsequent rule infractions. If the solitary sentence exceeds the remainder of the entire sentence, COs are authorized to enforce further punishment through deprivation of haircuts, clothing, recreation, and even nutritional food.

It is well documented that prolonged solitary confinement often leads to mental illness in previously healthy individuals and almost always exacerbates mental illness where it already exists. Inmates in isolation have higher rates of suicide and self-harm. COs also report adverse effects from working in such tension including depression, alcoholism and family problems.

Why solitary?

The question remains why solitary confinement is so heavily relied upon in the US despite its costliness compared to conventional prisons, its negative effects on inmates and COs, and its ineffectiveness in reforming criminals. How did we get to where we are today?

In 1890, the US Supreme Court concluded that “solitary confinement left prisoners in a semi-fatuous condition.” The practice was virtually abandoned in the US for nearly 90 years. Then, in 1983 a riot in a federal prison in Marion, IL prompted a state of emergency and permanent solitary lockdown for all inmates that lasted 23 years. By 1991, over 35 states had built or repurposed facilities to emulate the conditions at Marion. Between 1995 and 2000, the total US prison population grew by 28%; the population in isolation grew 40%. By 2000, the Justice Department estimated there were 80,000 prisoners being held in solitary at any one time in the US. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons claims the real number is much higher.

There is a clear connection between the invented Drug War and the resurgence of solitary confinement as an acceptable form of punishment. The NYCLU reports that the 346% increase in the prison population between 1973 and 1993 (correlated with vastly increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders) stressed the prison system with overcrowding that led to unprecedented management and control problems. Prisons responded to this stress by putting inmates in isolation.

Insubstantial Myths

Increased dependence on solitary confinement also mirrored a larger trend in the penal system toward punishment as opposed to rehabilitation. Just as policymakers waxed poetic about how they were “cracking down” on “hardened criminals”—language intended to make racist laws palatable to the public, as Michelle Alexander argues in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow—prison officials welcomed the construction of isolation units as proof of how “tough” their institutions were.

We are told that isolation is reserved for the “worst of the worst”—the most dangerous individuals in the prison population. Even the name of the solitary confinement prison—“super-max”—supports the notion that an extreme level of security is required to handle an extreme level of danger. But how can that be true if any violation can be punished with isolation? The NYCLU found that five out of six punitive isolation sentences are handed down for nonviolent rule infractions. The “worst of the worst” myth is simply not true.

Profit is the bottom line

The need for solitary confinement is a myth that supports a profit-driven prison system. Research shows that people released directly from solitary confinement are more likely to reoffend (and end up back in prison) than comparable general population prisoners. These crimes are also more likely to be violent and therefore garner a longer prison sentence.

This state of affairs is tragic, but it’s not surprising. The US prison system locks people up with no human contact and no meaningful work, denies them access to mental health care, and then releases them with no transitional programming whatsoever. The only beneficiary in this warped system is a prison system that profits from holding more inmates.

New Yorkers, our task is clear. We must stop torturing our fellow New Yorkers. We must reject the punitive, profit-driven imprisonment culture, and we must end the racist Drug War.



-National Religious Campaign Against Torture –; also powerpoint presentation in Columbus, GA in November 2012; also their film, “Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard.” SPC owns a DVD copy of this film. Contact Amelia to watch or organize a viewing.

-“Boxed In,” published by NYCLU, 2012,

– NYT Mar 10 2012 “Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity”

-“Invisible in Isolation: The Use of Segregation and Solitary Confinement in Immigrant Detention,” published by the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigration Justice Center & Physicians for Human Rights, 2012,

-The Passion of Bradley Manning, Chase Madar, 2012.

-The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, 2010.

Amelia’s education in prison justice was catalyzed by the tragic murder of Troy Anthony Davis on September 21, 2011. Thanks also to the inmate who wrote to the PNL recommending NYCLU’s report “Boxed In.”

Hard time close to home: Majority of state inmates now arrive at prison from outside New York City

Via The Real Cost of Prisons:

Hard time close to home:
Majority of state inmates now arrive at prison from outside New York City

By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau
Updated 12:38 a.m., Friday, November 11, 2011

ALBANY — It may be time to rethink the phrase “sent up the river.”

Historically, that meant someone from New York City was being dispatched to one of the numerous penitentiaries located across upstate or, in its original usage, to Sing-Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County.

But these days it may be more accurate to describe inmates as going down the river — or perhaps along the Mohawk or Susquehanna rivers.

That’s because, for the first time in recent memory, the majority of state prison inmates are no longer coming from New York City.

The trend has been present for several years, but starting in 2010 the five boroughs lost their collective spot as the top generator of inmates, as more and more convicts are coming from the suburbs, upstate cities and even rural areas.

“The population is changing,” said Brian Fischer, commissioner of Corrections and Community Supervision.

As of Jan. 1, there were 56,315 people in the prison system, according to state statistics. About 48 percent were convicted in New York City, 12 percent from the suburbs and 23 percent from upstate cities. Another 16 percent came from other areas upstate.

At the beginning of 2010, 49 percent were from New York City, marking the first time it fell below half. In 2009, it was 50 percent. In 2008, 52 percent were from New York City.

Increasingly, inmates hail from cities like Newburgh, Buffalo and Rochester and, to a lesser extent, the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, Fischer said.

Crime experts offer several reasons for the shift, including recent drug law reforms; a movement of people from New York City to upstate, where housing prices are lower; and even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on crime in the 1990s.

Fischer’s remarks came after he testified before the Assembly Committee on Correction, which held a hearing Thursday on the ongoing merger between the old Department of Correctional Services, which operates the prisons, and the Division of Parole.

The new combined agency is known as the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Queens, who chairs the chamber’s Correction Committee and has a reputation for diligence, was the only lawmaker to oversee the hearing. Legislators aren’t scheduled to be in session until January, and Thursday was the day before the three-day Veterans Day weekend.

Also present but not on the dais was Brooklyn Democratic state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, who serves on her chamber’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee.

The audience seats, though, were filled with people who work in the newly combined prison and parole systems.

Fischer and Parole Board Chairwoman Andrea Evans acknowledged that the related growth in the numbers of inmates and parolees living upstate presents challenges, especially with staffing and finding facilities where ex-convicts can meet with parole officers.

Upstate parole officers and the courts are seeing a higher caseload, Evans said.

“This is probably this year’s and next year’s priority: How do you address the needs of upstate?,” Fischer said.

Aubry noted that this is not a new issue, and the state needs to develop a plan. “That bothers me, because it means we will sit around next year and report the same thing,” Aubry said.

A representative of the parole officers union said his members sometimes must do double duty manning metal detectors to protect against parolees who might be packing weapons.

“Basic parameters are being ignored,” said John Walters, a Public Employees Federation member and leader of the unit representing the state’s 1,140 parole officers.

Evans later said that even with growing caseloads, the Parole Board works to ensure that officers who are keeping track of dangerous parolees have limited caseloads of no more than 25 at any given time.

“We want to focus our attention on the high-risk parolees,” she said, meaning violent or sex offenders, plus people with mental health issues.

Reach Karlin at 454-5758 or

Inmate shift

There were 56,315 individuals under custody in New York as of Jan. 1. Their regions of origin:

New York City48.3 percent

Suburban New York11.6 percent

Upstate urban23.7 percent

Upstate other16.4 percent

Source: Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

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