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Report Lambastes New York Lockdowns

by: Michael Rigby

Emotional and physical distress...restricted diets... "greeting beatings" ...high rates of mental illness...a reliance on warehousing instead of treatment. This is the troubling reality of disciplinary confinement in New York, according to a 54-page report released on October 22, 2003, by the New York Correctional Association (NYCA), a nonprofit prisoner-advocacy group.

Build `em . According to the report, the proliferation of lockdowns in New York, as in other states, has been fueled as much by economic considerations as any legitimate interest in prison security. After eliminating parole for violent offenders in 1995, New York received nearly $200 million in federal funds for prison construction under Bill Clinton's 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Between 1997 and 2000, the state used this money to construct 10 modern day high-tech lockdown facilities, bringing the total to 11.

In other states these prisons would be called "supermax." But New York prison officials resist that term. "Either way," notes the report, "conditions are basically the same: 23 hour lockdown, enforced idleness, and extreme isolation." The majority of the 5,000 prisoners in disciplinary confinement reside in these high-tech lockdowns (two, Southport and Upstate, comprise entire prisons; the other ninetermed S-Blocksare free standing facilities on the grounds of existing prisons). The rest are confined to their cells or sent to special housing units (SHUs), which are designated cell blocks on existing units.

Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) Commissioner Glenn Goord claimed the build-up was responsible for a 15-year low in prisoner-on-staff and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. The report explains, however, that in 1996, one year before the build up began, the rate of prisoner-on-staff assaults was already at a ten-year low.

The report further asserts that the high cost of building supermax prisons is more than offset by their low operating costs. Minimal services and limited movement mean that housing a prisoner in lockdown costs about half what it does in a regular prisonabout $16,000 per year compared to $32,000.

Then Fill `em . Needless to say, efforts are taken to keep these low cost beds occupied. Originally only Tier III violationsthe most seriouswere eligible for disciplinary lockdown. But after Upstate and the S-Blocks were built, the Department allowed them to accept less serious Tier II violations. In fact, the report found that several men were in lockdown for such minor violations as smoking and horse-playing. One prison official even told investigators that hearing officers had recently been pressured to sentence prisoners to at least 90 days in disciplinary confinement so they'd be eligible for transfer to Upstate or an S-Block. As noted by criminologists Leena Kurki and Norval Morris in the report: "Once a supermax is built, there is a tendency to keep it full." (Of interest to New York prisoners, the report notes that more than one-fifth of Tier III rulings are reversed on appeal.)

Mental Health. Nearly one-fourth (23%) of prisoners in lockdown are mentally ill, according to the report. (The rate for the general population is 11%.) Contributing to the problem is a lack of in-patient beds at the system's sole psychiatric hospital, Central New York Psychiatric Center (CNYPC), which has not expanded its 206 bed capacity since it opened in 1980despite a near tripling of the prisoner population. Thus, prisoners in need of psychiatric care are typically treated at CNYPC and quickly returned to lockdown until they again decompensate and are returned to the hospital. One outside psychiatrist described this vicious cycle as a "misery-go-round."

The report notes that on nearly every site visit to a disciplinary lockdown, investigators were confronted with prisoners "in states of extreme desperation: men weeping in their cells; men who had smeared feces on their bodies or lit their cells on fire; prisoners who cut their own flesh in a form of self-directed violence known as self-mutilation; inmates who rambled incoherently and paced about their cells like caged animals; individuals with paranoid delusions...."

The psychologically damaging effects of long-term isolation have been well-documented, argue the report's authors. However, no empirical research has shown the contrarythat solitary confinement produces positive changes in behavior. In fact, 74% of those sampled at Southport had done previous stints in disciplinary lockdown. The report contends that "This high return rate for disciplinary housing undermines the notion that lockdown is an effective tool for improving behavior"just like prisons in general.

Restricted Diets . One of the most severe forms of punishment in lockdown is the restricted diet, aka "the loaf." The report describes it this way: "Consisting mainly of flour, potatoes, carrots, and very little fat, the `loaf' is a dense, binding, tasteless one-pound loaf of bread that is served to inmates three times a day, along with a side portion of raw cabbage." Although the loaf has been banned by the American Correctional Association, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and a number of states, according to the report, the DOCS has expanded its use by more than 100% since 1997. One man, sentenced to 35 years in lockdown, "was put on the diet because he had `nothing left to lose, all of his privileges have been taken away,'" according to guards. Another prisoner, this one HIV+, was on the loaf even though Department policy prohibits placing HIV infected prisoners on the restricted diet. "The facility quickly corrected its error, but the fact that it happened shows a dangerous lack of oversight," notes the report.

Suicide and Self-mutilation . Suicide and self-mutilation are common in lockdown. The report referred to a study by the Poughkeepsie Journal which found that "more than half (52%) of prison suicides in New York take place in disciplinary lockdown, though disciplinary lockdown contains less than 10% of the inmate population." The report noted that after one suicidal prisoner was found hanging in his cell on May 1, 2000 at Upstate "he was not taken to the hospital for 45 minutes because the private ambulance service with whom DOCS contracts services did not answer the phone." The fire department ultimately transported the prisoner to the hospital, where he died 20 minutes later. If he had survived, the attempt may have won him more time in lockdown since prisoners attempting to kill or harm themselves are routinely issued disciplinary tickets. As the report contends, "To punish individuals in such desperate straits can only be described as cruel and misguided."

Guards' Perspective . According to the report, guards complained to investigators that they receive minimal training, have few resources to handle mentally ill prisoners, and receive little support from the Department or prison administration for traumatic events experienced in lockdown, such as suicide attempts and cell extractions. At Southport guards told investigators that the work was "degrading" and "humiliating." "Several had stories of being stabbed, spat at, assaulted, or `thrown at.' One man had twice been put on prophylactic HIV medications after exposure to blood or feces. Many officers, they said, take anti-depressants to cope with the stressful and depressing nature of the job."

Double-celling . The report also lambasted the Department's practice of double-celling prisoners in lockdown. According to the report, all 3,000 prisoners in Upstate and the nine S-Blocks are double-celled, confined with their cellmate in a tiny 105 sq. ft. area 24 hours a day. There is no privacy. Showers and toilets lack curtains or privacy barriers. These cramped conditions can quickly lead to violence. The report recounted one incident at Upstate in which "Jose Quintana was brutally murdered by his cellmate in May 2001," after arguing about whether to turn off the light. An investigation by the Village Voice (reprinted in PLN , August 2001, p. 1) revealed that guards watched for 20 minutes as Quintana was beaten to death.

Recreation. Recreation consists of 1 hour a day in an empty 55 sq. ft. cage connected to the cell, during which time prisoners remain shackled. They are not permitted to wear gloves or hats, even in the northern regions where temperatures can be below freezing six months of the year. These austere conditions reportedly cause many prisoners to forego recreation altogether.

Abuse . Many prisoners complained of "greeting beatings" upon arrival at lockdown. Even in electronically monitored lockdowns, guards "push you under the camera and beat the shit out of you," said one prisoner. Prisoners also complained of harassment, such as guards "forgetting" to feed them. A civilian employee at Southport told investigators that "The bad officers know they can get away with anything because it's sanctioned at the top."

Neglect . Neglect is also prevalent in lockdown, according to the report. As just one example, the report refers to a prisoner who had full-blown AIDS. "He was so ill, that he could barely lift his head off of the pillow." The man said he was in extreme pain and starving. "He was disoriented but aware that he was dying, in the darkest, dankest cellblock in the prison." Neglect was also a major factor in at least eight prisoner deaths in 2001, according to the report. For example, in separate incidents two prisoners were allowed to starve after they announced they were going on a hunger strike. Another killed himself a month after writing a request for counseling that went unanswered. Still another was allowed to commit suicide by hanging himself in the rec penin full view of security cameras.

Lack of Confidentiality. Prisoners' access to health care is impeded by a lack of confidentiality, according to the report, which notes that "All clinical consults are conducted `cell-front' by nurses standing directly in front of the cells." As a result, these consultations are easily overheard by cellmates and neighboring prisoners. Nurses even routinely draw blood through the cell door's food slot.

Release . Shockingly, prisoners confined for years in these horrid conditions are regularly released directly into the public with no treatment or therapy. One guard at Southport told investigators that he routinely violates prison rules by escorting lockdown prisoners unshackled on the day of their release. "`If the guy's going to stab someone, I'd rather it be me than the first person he bumps into at the Elmira bus station,'" he said.

Recommendations . The report made a number of recommendations to improve conditions in lockdown. Among them: create an independent oversight board to monitor conditions in lockdown; provide appropriate housing for mentally ill prisoners; institute suicide prevention programs; cease shackling prisoners during recreation; cease penalizing those who harm themselves; end the use of restricted diets; provide anger management, self-help, educational, and pre-release programs; use disciplinary lockdown only for serious offenses; avoid double-celling when practicable; expand the capacity of CNYPC; increase funding for therapeutic services to mentally ill prisoners; and appoint a task force to identify ways to improve the safety, morale and training of staff.

Response . DOCS Commissioner Goord acted quickly after receiving an advance copy of the report in August 2003he banned the report's principle author, Jennifer Wynn, from entering the prisons beyond the visitation area. Goord later imposed new limits on how many NYCA investigators may visit a prison, banned NYCA interviews with prison staff, and declared access to all SHUs off limits. PLN has reported extensively on prison lockdowns. See indexes for more.

Additional source: New York Times

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