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Suicides in New York SHUs Surge to Epidemic Levels

Ten days later, Ben committed suicide.

Suicide rates inside New York’s state prison system have grown at an alarming pace since Ben took his life. According to a May 2020 report by the #HALTsolitary Campaign, which analyzed data obtained from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) through public records requests, 75 people died by suicide in New York prisons from January 2015 to April 2020. There were 18 suicides in 2019 alone, which the report cites as 88% higher than the national average for all U.S. prisons.

#HALTsolitary Campaign’s findings also reveal distressing increases in suicide rates at New York’s solitary confinement units, or Special Housing Units (SHUs) in the state prison system’s jargon.

From January 2015 to April 2019, suicide attempts in SHUs accounted for 43% of all attempts in New York’s prisons. Because the documents obtained from DOCCS were incomplete, only 20 suicides could be confirmed to have occurred in SHUs; the report, however, suggests that the number could be as much as 2.5 times higher.

Regardless, even if underreported, the 20 deaths by suicide in SHUs represent a rate five times higher than for New York prisons overall. In 2019, suicides in New York’s SHUs accounted for one-third (6) of all suicides in the state’s prisons, 10 times the average for prisons in America.

The report’s other disturbing data include:

• Solitary confinement takes its heaviest toll on the prison’s youngest occupants, like Ben Van Zandt: 20- to 29-year-olds account for 50% of all suicides in SHUs, twice as many as the next highest age group, 30- to 39-year-olds.

• People of color make up 65% of suicides in SHUs.

• Those who spend one to three years in solitary confinement account for 35% of suicides, 20% higher than those spending less than a year and 15% higher than those who are confined in isolation for three to five years.

• People serving five- to 10-year sentences have the highest suicide rate (20%) in SHUs, nearly two times as many who die by suicide in the general population.

• The SHU suicide attempt rate is 12 times higher than for the rest of the prison population in New York.

• Self-inflicted injuries in SHUs occur at a rate more than seven times higher than those in non-isolation.

Although #HALTsolitary Campaign’s report does not address the long-term impact of solitary confinement on individuals, there is ample research documenting that the psychological and emotional trauma caused by isolation does not stop once a prisoner is released from prison.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who have spent any amount of time in solitary confinement are 78% more likely to die by suicide after release than those who have never spent time in isolation.

The lifelong psychological damage of isolation is so profoundly debilitating that it prompted Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015, to call for intense legal scrutiny over the practice of using solitary confinement in American prisons, especially for young people and those with mental illnesses.

Yet despite the well-documented research, New York’s prisons increased the use of solitary confinement from 2015 to 2018.

In response to New York’s refusal to limit the use of solitary confinement, or dismantle the prisons’ SHUs altogether, advocates pushed the state legislature to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act. The HALT Act proposed the elimination of solitary confinement for those younger than 22 and older than 55, and for those with disabilities and mental illnesses; the act would also limit stints in solitary to a maximum of 15 days. In effect, the HALT Act would codify international standards limiting the use of solitary confinement into New York law.

Surprisingly, perhaps, New York Democratic Party leaders torpedoed the act in the closing moments of the 2019 legislative session.

Ben Van Zandt would have been kept out of solitary confinement had the HALT Act passed—and might still be alive today. “It’s time for the legislature to pass the HALT bill; it’s time to stop people from dying like Ben,” implored his mother. 


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