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N.Y. Becomes Largest Prison System To Curb Solitary Confinement

New York made sweeping changes this week to the way prisons use solitary confinement.

The deal, signed by a federal judge on Wednesday, was prompted by a federal lawsuit filed by critics who say thousands of inmates — some of them pregnant or mentally ill — are being held for months and even years in isolation, often for minor infractions.

Years Spent In Solitary

An inmate named Five Mualimm-ak spent 11 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.

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, because apple seeds contain arsenic," Mualimm-ak says. "So I ate the core and I got a ticket for that."

Tickets mean more time in solitary. Mualimm-ak 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, or looking at the paint on the wall, and how many cracks on the wall, and the wind that whisks under the door starts sounding like sounds, delirium sets in," he says. "You get depressed."

Ending Solitary For The Most Vulnerable

In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union published a report showing that thousands of men and women are being held in these 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," Lieberman says.

The NYCLU sued, and while the case moved through federal court, negotiations began between Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state corrections officials and reform advocates.

The deal announced this week 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 be locked away.

"These changes, while just a first step, are significant," she says. "They're historic. We're the largest system in the country to preclude solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners. 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.

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."

A Tool To Maintain Order

The head of New York's prison guard union, Donn Rowe, wouldn't comment on the deal. But after the N.Y.C.L.U. filed its lawsuit, he wrote an editorial for The New York Post describing solitary confinement as critical for ensuring "stability and safety" in state prisons.

Martin Horn, who was commissioner of New York City's prison system for six years and now teaches at John Jay College, says 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," he says.

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

"As programs and activities have been stripped as a result of budget cuts, all that is left is idle inmates," he says. "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, Cuomo has also been pushing an aggressive prison reform agenda, including a call for more education and inmate re-entry programs.

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

"When I first came home, I didn't even know what kind of face to make when I'm talking to somebody," he says. "Or feeling odd even talking on the phone."

Mualimm-ak says he 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 in New York say they hope the state's new guidelines will serve a a model.

Copyright 2014 NCPR

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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