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By Taylor Pendergrass
Solitary confinement – the harshest possible punishment within the prison system – is used on an unprecedented scale in New York. The state’s top prison official concedes the point.
“I’ll admit, we overuse it,” Brian Fischer, commissioner of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said in January.
The New York Civil Liberties Union just concluded an intensive yearlong study of New York’s use of solitary confinement, described in a report released Tuesday: “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons.” We found that ceaseless isolation and deprivation endangers prisoners and corrections staff and makes our communities less safe.
Over the past 20 years, New York has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate an extensive network of extreme isolation cells, which the department calls “special housing units” or “SHUs” – and prisoners call “the Box.” New York has nearly 5,000 beds in SHUs located in 39 prisons, including hundreds in Western New York.
Prisoners in isolation spend at least 23 hours a day locked in tiny cells, where they are deprived of all meaningful human contact and mental stimulation. “Recreation” amounts to an hour alone outside in empty pens.
These conditions cause serious emotional and psychological harm, including severe depression and uncontrollable rage. Particularly for those suffering from mental illness, extreme isolation can be life-threatening. And corrections staff receive few resources to safely manage individuals buckling under extreme isolation or its effects.
From 2007 through 2011, the department issued more than 68,100 extreme isolation sentences for violations of prison rules. Only 16 percent were for assault or weapons.
Each year, 25,000 people are released from New York’s prisons. Thousands will have spent time in the box. Approximately 2,000 prisoners are released directly from isolation to the streets. They receive no rehabilitative services or transitional programming prior to release.
Chronically violent prisoners should be separated from the general population. But separation can occur without subjecting them to the deprivation of extreme isolation – a point of consensus among corrections officials in other states, legal scholars and international human rights bodies.
Fischer and state leaders can take two sensible steps to make prisons and communities safer. First, the department should ensure that prisoners are separated only when necessary, under the least restrictive conditions and for the shortest time possible. Then it should audit the population in isolation and return anyone who doesn’t belong there to the general prison population.

Taylor Pendergrass is a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union.