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Malone prison singled out in report on "extreme isolation"

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A report released this week by the New York Civil Liberties Union calls for major reforms to the state prison system that would reduce the number of inmates held in solitary confinement or isolation.

According to the study, roughly 8% of state prisoners are being held in special isolation cells. Roughly a third of those solitary confinement cells, known as "special housing units," are located here in the North Country.

Critics say the use of solitary confinement by prison guards has spiraled out of control.

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At a teleconference held this week with reporters, the New York Civil Liberties Union introduced Taylor Alonzo, a father from Long Island whose 27-year-old son is currently being held in an isolation cell at a prison in central New York.

We're creating animals. This system is making monsters.
"We're creating animals, this system is making monsters," he argued.  "My son was locked away with another man in a solitary confinement cell barely big enough for one."

Donna Lieberman, head of the civil rights group, said a year-long study using internal prison system documents and interviews with more than a hundred inmates, found that solitary confinement was used as a punishment far too often.

"Instead of serving as the punishment of last resort, extreme isolation appears to have become the remedy of choice," Lieberman said.

She said inmates were placed in solitary for minor infractions, including talking back to prison guards and "having too many postage stamps" in their cells.

NYCLU says this kind of solitary confinement cell is widely used in New York's prisons, including Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone. Source: NYCLU
NYCLU says this kind of solitary confinement cell is widely used in New York's prisons, including Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone. Source: NYCLU
At any given time, roughly 4,500 inmates are being held in one or two man isolation cells — held in lockdown 23 hours a day.

According to the study, those sent to solitary serve an average sentence apart from the general prison population of roughly five months. 

Only one in six inmates sent to solitary appear to have committed acts that involve violence or weapons.

In a statement, Department of Correctional Services  commissioner Brian Fischer said he welcomed the Civil Liberties Union report.

According to Fischer, state officials began their own "intensive review" of solitary confinement procedures just last month.

Brian Fischer, commissioner of New York's prison system, says a review of solitary confinement policies is underway. Source: NYS
Brian Fischer, commissioner of New York's prison system, says a review of solitary confinement policies is underway. Source: NYS
But he also argued that placing inmates in segregated cells is sometimes necessary "to protect those in our custody as well as our employees."

That view is shared by Martin Horn, former commissioner of New York City's prison system and former commissioner of the prison system in the state of Pennsylvania.

"We have to be very careful not to deprive corrections administrator of tools that are necessary to keep the vast majority of inmates safe.  So you want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

But Horn, who now lectures at John Jay College, agrees that the time has come for solitary confinement procedures to be reviewed and reformed.  "They need to examine the level of usage and reduce it," he said.

The Civil LIberties Union report singles out for special criticism one North Country prison in Malone. 

Upstate Correctional Facility has more than a thousand special housing units where inmates are kept in isolated circumstances.

The report cites the experience of one inmate at Upstate who suffered anxiety and depression.  It also quotes two former counselors at the prison — including a Roman Catholic priest — who describe conditions at the facility as inhumane for inmates and unhealthy for corrections officers.

“Where we live, it’s a large farming community,” said former DOCs counselor Dan Benware, according to the study.

“We have laws on the books against cattle being confined to these huge, huge barns. The Department of Agriculture watches for that type of abuse.... Yet when it comes to human beings, we are keeping them in cages that wouldn’t be fit for our cows."

In his statement, Commissioner Fischer disputed those accounts, arguing that inmates in isolation have regular interaction with prison staff, for "medical, mental health, religious counseling, education and personal hygiene."

In their report, howevever, the Civil Liberties Union argues that the state needs to go much farther, putting in place a proper review system to weed out inmates who should never be placed in solitary.

Taylor Pendergrass, who co-authored the study, says current safeguards are inadequate.

"Prisoner separation is a sometimes necessary tool for corrections officials," he said.  "But New York's regime of extreme isolation has warped that legitimate use beyond any recognition."

This study comes at a time when the state's prison population has dropped sharply, due to drug law reforms and lower crime rates.  But it all comes as the state has tightened budgets for the prison system, closing prisons and curtailing the number of corrections officers.

Martin Horn at John Jay College says reforming the solitary confinement system in New York may mean making a bigger investment in staff and new housing facilities.

"They need more staff, they need different kind of space and a variety of housing options," he said.

The Civil Liberties Union says it welcomes the Cuomo administration's internal review of the solitary confinement system. 

But the group says it will also consider pushing for action by the state legislature or by the courts.

Natasha Haverty contributed to this report.

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