ALBANY — State prison officials used solitary confinement to punish inmates 38,249 times last year and isolated hundreds of prisoners with mental illness because they misbehaved, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) said in a report released Monday.
The watchdog group also criticized the state’s proposed regulations that would govern the use of solitary confinement that the rules “fail to end the continued use of torture through long periods of isolation.”
Researchers, using records from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, found that the agency has increased use of “keeplock,” a method of disciplining inmates by locking them in cells for 23 hours a day, though they can keep access to their personal property.
Meanwhile, the state has succeeded in trimming its use of the special housing units, the most controversial form of solitary, using them 10,466 times in 2018, down from 12,912 times in 2015.
The practice of punishing inmates by sending them to long stretches in solitary has been criticized by the state’s Roman Catholic bishops, among others.
Keeplock is considered slightly less onerous than the special housing units. The latter offer cells the NYCLU said are about the same size as a small elevator.
The union for prison security officers, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, has argued that the use of special housing units and keeplock have become important tools to maintain order behind bars.
New York is one of several states now fielding criticism for its use of solitary confinement. In Florida, the Southern Poverty Law Center is among groups suing the prison authorities there, alleging the practice of isolating inmates for long periods violates constitutional standards.
The North Carolina prison system, meanwhile, has faced protests for allegedly sending pregnant inmates to solitary confinement.
In New York, state officials say they have made progress in addressing the concerns of critics of solitary and this week will begin implementing new rules designed to overhaul the policies governing the practice.
They said the median length of stay in a special housing cell has been cut by at least 25 percent while the total number of individuals serving time in the isolation cells has been reduced by 41 percent.
But the NYCLU report said the changes being made by the agency fall short, leaving too many inmates facing the rigors of solitary, including people with mental illness.
The NYCLU called for enactment of proposed legislation that would prohibit solitary confinement for people diagnosed with mental illness as well as inmates older than 55 and those between the ages of 18 and 21.
That bill was sidelined earlier this year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and the Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature agreed to pursue new regulations at the prison agency.
Glenn Liebman, director of the Mental Health Association of New York State, told CNHI that isolating mentally ill inmates is bound to leave them severely impaired.
“For individuals who have mental health issues and are incarcerated — people who have a trauma history or post traumatic stress disorder — there is nothing worse for their diagnosis than to be put in solitary confinement,” he said.
The NYCLU report determined that the average length of a special housing sanction in New York is 105 days, though 2,600 inmates were held for more than 90 days and 131 prisoners had sanctions that stretched for at least a year.
The reforms the state is pursuing would cut the special housing population by 43 percent, while the measure backed by opponents of solitary, Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (HALT), would shave the number of inmates sent to solitary by 88 percent, the NYCLU said.
With both houses of the Legislature being under Democratic control next year, the HALT legislation is expected to surface again in the coming legislative session.