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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

NY will limit solitary confinement time for prison inmates

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Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to sweeping changes to the way state prisons use solitary confinement. The deal was prompted by a federal lawsuit filed by critics who say thousands of inmates, some of whom are pregnant or have mental illness, are being held for months and even years in isolation, often for minor infractions.

The deal will end the use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable inmates, and will also mean strict limits on the length of time an inmate can be locked away.

The lawsuit focused in part on inmates housed at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, but will affect disciplinary procedures at a dozen state prisons across the North Country.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When I first came home, I didn't even know what kind of face to make when I was talking to somebody.
Five Mualimm-ak spent eleven years in New York's prison system for criminal weapons possession and other charges. During that time, he was held in solitary confinement for a total of five years, part of that time at a state prison in Malone.

That punishment, he says, often followed small violations of prison rules, like the time he ate an apple incorrectly. "Turns out you're not supposed to eat the apple core," Mualimm-ak said, "because apple seeds contain arsenic. So I ate the core and I got a ticket for that."

He was also punished for fighting and for what prison guards viewed as uncooperative behavior. As months in solitary dragged into years, he says the loneliness and boredom became unbearable.

"Once you finish counting all the bolts in the floor, looking at the paint on the wall, how many cracks on the wall, the wind that whisks under the door starts sounding like sounds, delirium sets in, you get depressed," Mualimm-ak said.

In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union published a report (more) showing that thousands of men and women are being held in special isolation units, some for more than a decade. Those inmates are locked in their cells alone 23 hours a day. Even during exercise periods they rarely have human contact.

Donna Lieberman, the group's executive director, says many inmates who need medical care and counseling are instead kept in solitary, "including young people, including people who are developmentally disabled, and pregnant women."

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued and while the case moved through Federal court, negotiations began between Governor Cuomo, state corrections officials and reform advocates. This week, they announced the deal, which will end the use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable inmates. Lieberman says it will also mean strict limits on the length of time an inmate can spend in solitary.

"These changes while just a first step are significant, they're historic," said Lieberman. "We're the largest system in the country to preclude solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. That's huge."

Corrections officials have also agreed to spend the next two years developing strict new guidelines, limiting the use of solitary as a punishment except for the most severe infractions. Lieberman says she hopes the changes will mean a new approach - particularly at maximum security facilities like Upstate Correctional in Malone.

New York's acting prison commissioner, Anthony Annucci, declined to be interviewed for this story. But he issued a statement saying that these new guidelines will "make the disciplinary practices in New York's prisons more humane."

It's unclear what role, New York's prison guard union played in these talks. The group's leader, Donn Rowe, wouldn't comment on the deal.

But after the New York Civil Liberties filed their lawsuit he wrote an editorial for the New York Post, describing "disciplinary confinement" as critical for ensuring "stability and safety" in state prisons.

NYCLU issued its report on isolation practices in state prisons in 2012. Read more <a href="http://www.boxedinny.org/">here</a>.
NYCLU issued its report on isolation practices in state prisons in 2012. Read more here.
Martin Horn was commissioner of New York City's prison system for six years and teaches now at John Jay College. He said there are times when isolating inmates makes sense: "Some segregation will always be necessary in a prison system like New York's for safety reasons."

Horn agrees that these reforms were needed to prevent the overuse of isolation, but he says the new rules could leave prison guards with fewer tools for maintaining order.

"As programs and activities have been cut as a result of budget cuts," said Horn, "all that is left are idle inmates. And idle inmates make problems."

Horn says he hopes New York state will now move to develop and fund new education and training programs to take the place of solitary confinement, replacing punishments with incentives.

In fact, this week's agreement comes as Governor Cuomo has been pushing an aggressive prison reform agenda.

He's called for an end to the practice of locking up sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds in state prisons.

Just last week, he announced a plan to restart government-funded college education programs for inmates and Cuomo has ordered the closure of four more correctional facilities this summer.

Cuomo, speaking during his state of the state address last month said, "We are reducing the madness of an incarceration society and ending a system of unnecessary human and financial waste."

After getting out of prison last year, Five Mualimm-ak said his five years in solitary left him suffering insomnia and depression.

"When I first came home," said Mualimm-ak, "I didn't even know what kind of face to make when I was talking to somebody or feeling odd just talking on the phone."

Mualimm-ak thinks this deal is a good first step, and will help inmates find rehabilitation and counseling rather than isolation.

California, Colorado and other states are also considering changes to their solitary confinement policies. Reform advocates here say they hope New York's new guidelines will serve as a model.

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