End inmate isolation

New York must follow the example of other states and end the practice of subjecting prisoners to long periods of complete isolation in confined spaces.

An investigation by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that New York spends $76 million per year to operate nearly 5,000 extreme isolation cells located in prisons throughout the state.

The punishment is unimaginably cruel: 4,500 prisoners spend up to 23 hours per day in solitary confinement or accompanied by just one other prisoner, in cells the size of an elevator. In some cases, the report points out, imprisonment in these solitary cells can go on for years.

Extreme isolation can devastate the mental and emotional condition of prisoners. It can also ruin their possibilities to rehabilitate and successfully rejoin their communities and families. This practice voids the end goal of prisons: correct unlawful behaviors, rehabilitate and avoid recidivism.

Many prisoners in isolation-a majority of them African American or Hispanic-are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes, according to the report, and are sent to isolation when they break jail rules, like smoking in the bathroom, selling chewing tobacco or talking back to a guard.

Based on interviews with inmates who were in isolation, the authors concluded that the practice is “arbitrary, unjustified and unsafe.”

The way the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision dismissed the worrisome conclusions of the report as one “point of view” about what is or isn’t a proper sentence for a person who commits a crime.

But there is a big difference between the sentences a judge issues and arbitrary decisions to subject people to conditions that jeopardize their personal safety and human rights. States such as Maine and Colorado have changed their isolation policies in favor of “separating” prisoners for short periods of time, only when the circumstances legitimately warrant it.

We support the call to immediately change this cruel policy. If the Department refuses to implement reforms, Governor Cuomo must demand reform. Otherwise, the legislature must step in and end this inhumane practice once and for all.