New York Prisons Bar Media from Solitary Confinement Units

Late last year, we made several requests to be permitted, as members of the press, to view solitary confinement units in New York’s state prisons. After receiving no reply, we were fortunate enough to enlist the help of a pro bono attorney, Daniel Mulkoff with the firm of Cuti Hecker and Wang, who approached the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on our behalf. This finally yielded a response, in the form of a blanket rejection of any request to view such facilities. Their letter appears below.

The response was neither surprising, nor unique to New York. Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units, as we’ve written before, are America’s domestic black sites, off-limits to the media as well as the public. However, in recent times several states have loosened up on their restrictions. Colorado has allowed National Geographic, among others, to film inside its state supermax. Maine allowed Frontline inside its solitary confinement unit. Even California has allowed some (controlled and limited) access to its notorious supermax, Pelican Bay.

New York appears unwilling to make any such concessions. It’s clear that New York intends to keep its isolation facilities out of view of the media–and, by extension, the public. The federal courts are largely on their side. If this is to change, that change must come through public pressure for policy change or via legislation. In the meantime, our correspondents inside prison, who often risk retaliation by writing to tell us about conditions in solitary, remain virtually our only window into this secret world.

Response Letter from DOCCS 5.7.14 (1)-page-001 Response Letter from DOCCS 5.7.14 (1)-page-002

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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  • Pat Mitchell

    I find it funny that all information received about the conditions of SHU being barbaric is based on current or past inmates or their families. No actually proof other than hearsay has been provided. Here is a thought, don’t commit a crime and you won’t have to worry about it. And if you have committed a crime follow the rules within the prison system and you won’t be sent to SHU. Inmates are not sent there for being model inmates. People are sent to prison for being model citizens. Furthermore, what are officers to do when an inmate attacks them physically in a violent threat? Are they to reach out and offer a hug? It is human nature to act in defense when being attacked? So should they allow a violent inmate to attack with no repercussions? Is that fair to their families? Also there are many inmates when threatened by other inmates who will seek out confinement for their own safety. And what about the threat to the whole facility and other inmates who are trying to serve their time, should they be punished or threatened by those that don’t wish to abide by the rules? Should they be put at risk? The public would scream in outrage if one of these inmates who should be SHU attack/killed a model inmate because he was not locked in SHU? And there are inmates who are in SHU who pose a serioys threat to the safety ofvthe facty, other inmates and officers; who to this day threaten that if 4eleased from SHU will reak violence on any and all, whwt should we do with them? There is no easy answer. But lets think about all the facts and not just hearsay. Assaults on officers and other inmates by inmates is on a rise, shortage of staff, double bunking, closures of prisons and removal of rehabilitation programs are issues we should be concerned with. Maybe once we correct all of these issues we will see a decrease in the use of SHU.

    • stacy

      Yes, Pat, some people are dangerous and need to be confined. The greater issue is the frequency SHU is used. Fewer than 5% at my facility involved violence against a staff person. About half are correspondence violations. Several women received 30 days in SHU for being late to a medical appointment. I went for reading a family court document to a woman who could neither read nor write English. I broke the rule because it was wrong to watch a woman lose her kids because she was illiterate, couldn’t file a piece of paper on her own and our law library was UNSTAFFED. As an enlightened society I simply invite people to ask if it is reasonable to cage a person for non violent infractions when there are alternatives. Second, most people released from prison return to their communities. The U.N. states more than 2 weeks in isolation is torture with often permanent effects. We are returning damaged people home. Finally, there are numerous studies by corrections organizations that demonstrate the officers working in SHU environments suffer also. They have elevated stress and are likely to retire earlier with health issues.

  • Stacy Burnett

    I served 8 1/2 months in solitary confinement in Albion Correctional Facility and in Bedford Hills. I currently am on parole, and have been threatened to be returned to prison for advocating for the end of this barbaric practice. I am so thankful for everyone on this side of the wall keeping on the pressure. We should be ashamed to treat any human being this way when we condemn other nations for identical practice. jlo, you are SO spot on with the officer making jokes about the mentally ill and what fun it is to torture a prisoner who is really vulnerable. Thanks for holding it down for your man!

  • jlo1965

    My husband has been in a New York prison for 21 years. He had a rough start in prison after being wrongfully convicted. I know most who say they have served an injustice. In this case it’s the truth. He’s not been in the SHU for over 15 years. He’s been a model prisoner. Because of his status we are able to take part in family visits. I’m able to stay with him in a small trailer in a designated part of the prison for 44 hours. Behind the trailer units is a small yard we are allowed to walk around in. On one of the first occasions I heard screaming that was so terrifying and haunting that I held my husband close and asked him what was that. He said it was the mentally ill prisoners. That on the other-side of the trailer facilities is where these men are housed. On arrival to one of my visits was an ambulance taking a mentally ill prisoner to the hospital because he had swallowed a plastic razor. The correctional officers thought this was a huge joke. They said when this prisoner get’s back we are throwing him in the shu with what they call a Barny Rubble suit. It’s basically a padded apron and they’re naked underneath. Then they are locked into the SHU for 23 hours a day. They feed them a Nutraloaf or prison loaf. Google it. It’s disgusting. It’s meant to be eaten without any utensils. Some men go to the SHU just because. What was meant as a tool for the extremely violent has become an arbitrarily for minor prison violations. So of course they don’t want the media to know. The screaming. The filth. The inhumanity.

  • Eileen Mackin

    Don’t give up. A light must be shown into these prison sites to inform Americans what is happening to our citizens. Solitary Watch has allowed me and my granddaughters to write to a man who is becoming a friend. He is making a difference in our lives.

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