Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘solitary confinement

New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”

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In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:  Read the rest of this entry »

ACLU, Prison Law Office File Suit against the Arizona Prison System

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Here’s some interesting news on the prison litigation front: The ACLU of Arizona has joined forces with the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office — they’re the ones who’ve been litigating California prison conditions cases for years, and brought us last year’s Plata decision at SCOTUS. The two groups have filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Arizona prison system’s use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment:

In one particularly tragic case, a prisoner at the state prison complex in Tucson died last year of untreated lung cancer that spread to his liver, lymph nodes and other major organs before prison officials even bothered to send him to a hospital. The prisoner, Ferdinand Dix, filed repeated health needs requests and presented numerous symptoms associated with lung cancer. His liver was infested with tumors and swelled to four times its normal size, pressing on other internal organs and impeding his ability to eat. Prison medical staff responded by telling him to drink energy shakes. He died in February 2011, days after finally being sent to a hospital but only after his abdomen was distended to the size of that of a full-term pregnant woman. A photograph of Dix shortly before his death appears in the lawsuit.

Jackie Thomas, one of the lawsuit’s named plaintiffs who is housed in solitary confinement at the state prison complex in Eyman, has suffered significant deterioration in his physical and mental health as a result of being held in isolation, where he has become suicidal and repeatedly harmed himself in other ways. Prison staff have failed to treat his mental illness, improperly starting and stopping psychotropic medications and repeatedly using ineffective medications that carry severe side effects. Last November, Thomas overdosed on medication but did not receive any medical care.

Given the unique circumstances under which Plata rose to the Supreme Court — California’s prison overcrowding had been endemic for years, and had reached the level of a state of emergency, as declared by Governor Schwarzenegger — I wasn’t sure that the Plata ruling would have much practical effect beyond the Golden State. So it’ll be interesting to watch as the Prison Law Office expands its work to Arizona. As Plata itself demonstrates, the staff there have a track record of translating concerns about prison conditions into legal claims that courts take seriously.

You can read the full complaint here [PDF]. Also involved in the suit is the Arizona Center for Disability Law. And there’s more info at the always excellent Solitary Watch blog.

And for broader historical context on the Arizona prison system, I highly recommend Mona Lynch’s Sunbelt Justice, which I blogged about here.

“Prison walls do not form a barrier … from the protections of the Constitution”

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New York federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout out of solitary confinement and into the general population (h/t Solitary Watch).

Given this blog’s focus, I thought I’d excerpt here a portion of Scheindlin’s opinion that provides a useful short primer on how judges evaluate the constitutionality of prison regulations:

The standard for evaluating whether prison regulations impinge on a convicted prisoner’s constitutional rights is set forth in Turner v. Safley. In Turner, the Supreme Court held that to determine whether a prison regulation “burdens fundamental rights,” the reviewing court asks whether the regulation is “‘reasonably related’ to legitimate penological objectives, or whether it represents an ‘exaggerated response’ to those concerns.” Turner outlined a four-factor test for evaluating whether a prison regulation that allegedly violates a constitutional right is reasonably related to a valid correctional objective. The court must consider first whether there is a “valid, rational connection” between the regulation and the legitimate governmental interest used to justify it; second, whether there are alternative means for the prisoner to exercise the right at issue; third, the impact that the desired accommodation will have on guards, other inmates, and prison resources; and fourth, the absence of “ready alternatives.” …

In conducting this rational basis review, deference is accorded to the BOP’s determination. The Supreme Court has noted that courts are “‘ill equipped to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration and reform’” and that “separation of powers concerns counsel a policy of judicial restraint.” However, as previously noted, “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution” and “‘[w]hen a prison . . . practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.’”

Upcoming Event: January 8 Launch of Anti-Solitary Confinement Campaign in Princeton, NJ

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On Sunday, January 8, Columbia law professor Scott Horton will speak at the launch of the National Religious Campaign against Torture’s initiative against solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. More event info here; register here. Thanks to a reader for sending this along!

Written by sara

January 5, 2012 at 6:49 am

Yesterday’s New York Solitary Confinement Panel

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The Metro New York Religious Campaign against Torture held a forum yesterday on solitary confinement in the New York state prison system. Using Storify (for my first time!), I made a roundup of journalist Liliana Segura‘s live tweets of the event which is available here. (Unfortunately it seems Storify can’t embed on a WordPress.com blog, but the link should work.) Or if you’re on Twitter yourself, follow @LilianaSegura for lots of excellent, real-time criminal justice updates.

Written by sara

June 22, 2011 at 8:10 am

Upcoming Event: “Isolation within U.S. Prisons,” April 5 in San Francisco

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A quick exception to the hiatus to note this event that should be of great interest to my Bay Area readers:

The Center for Constitutional Rights Presents:
Isolation Units Within U.S. Prisons: A Panel Discussion
featuring Dr. Terry Kupers; Keramet Reiter, PhD Candidate U.C. Berkeley, Zahra Billoo, Exec. Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR_SF), and CCR Staff Attorney Alexis Agathocleous.

Tuesday April 5, 2011
6:30 p.m.
Audre Lorde Room
The Women’s Building
3543 18th St. #8
San Francisco

More info here. More on Terry Kupers, a leading expert on prison mental health issues, here.

Written by sara

March 8, 2011 at 10:38 am

Ghailani May Spend Life in Florence Supermax

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As I’ve noted before, the War on Crime and the War on Terror have a lot of overlap. So, for students of mass incarceration, I wanted to highlight some particularly relevant snippets from the past few days’ coverage of the Ghailani verdict.

(1) Supermax, solitary confinement, and the politics of terror trials. Guantanamo military prosecutor Morris Davis has published this op-ed defending the verdict as just. Although his argument focuses mainly on procedural issues having to do with the trial itself, he also addresses Ghailani’s likely punishment:

Mr. Ghailani may well serve his sentence at the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo., where others convicted in the embassy bombings are confined. If so, he will spend more time in solitary and enjoy fewer privileges than those under the most restrictive measures at Guantánamo.

Of course, this is the same supermax that proponents of keeping Guantanamo open (most of whom aren’t exactly prison experts) have claimed is incapable of holding terror detainees. At least one prisoner has been held there in solitary confinement for decades, conditions that many psychologists don’t hesitate to call torture.

(2) The devalued currency of the life sentence? Here’s Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution: Read the rest of this entry »

“Sexual Assault and Abuse Rampant in Immigration Detention Centers”

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That’s the headline of this Campus Progress report (h/t: Adam Serwer). Immigration detention generally happens in private prisons run by the Corrections Corporation of America or county jails that contract with ICE. LGBT detainees are especially at risk:

And at the San Pedro Service Processing Center in California, a guard forced a transgender woman to repeatedly perform oral sex on him while she waited for her attorney in a holding cell. Even after she reported the incident, the staff took so long arranging for evidence collection that she was forced to wait overnight to wash out her mouth.

Violence against LGBT detainees, in particular, is a growing problem, as they are especially vulnerable within the detention system. In addition to being singled out for harassment as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, transgender women often face the added risk. They are often housed with male detainees and supervised by male guards. Under those conditions, transgender women are even more susceptible to violence than those held in women-only facilities. …

Unfortunately, efforts to safeguard this particularly vulnerable population have proven distinctly harmful as well. For instance, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted site visits of seven Southwest detention centers last year, they were troubled to find that some facilities attempted to protect LGBT detainees by keeping them in solitary confinement—a harshly punitive measure often used in prisons to discipline disobedient criminal inmates.

Written by sara

October 20, 2010 at 9:27 am

Questions Remain in Death of Mentally Ill North Carolina Inmate; Kept in Solitary for 1,400+ Days

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After spending much of his life in the custody of North Carolina (whether in a mental hospital or prison), Timothy Helms died this week of complications from an August 2008 fire in his prison cell at Taylorsville, in the course of which his skull was smashed. Despite conducting an investigation, the prison system remains unable to provide a conclusive account of how he received his injuries. The Charlotte Observer has the story, which highlights — among other things — how solitary confinement, which many psychologists do not hesitate to call to torture, has become a default means of “caring” for the severely mentally ill in our society. From the Observer:

Helms had an IQ of 79 and had attended special-education classes until he dropped out of high school at 16. Diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders, he was frequently admitted to state mental health facilities, including Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh.

He was sentenced to three life terms on three counts of second-degree murder following a 1994 drunken-driving collision. Helms, who did not have a driver’s license, claimed a drinking buddy who died in the accident was driving.

Helms’ disabilities made him a difficult inmate for the prison system. In 14 years behind bars, he racked up 125 rules infractions, ranging from threatening to harm staff and possessing a razor to using profanity and hoarding 84 postage stamps.

As punishment, he had spent at least 1,459 days in disciplinary or administrative segregation – terms used in North Carolina to describe solitary confinement. He was let out of his maximum security cell at Alexander Correctional Institution only a few hours each week to shower or go to an outdoor recreation cage.

Correction Department policy is that no inmate should be housed in isolation for more than 60 days in a stretch, a period prisoners commonly refer to as being in “The Hole.” But Helms’ prison records show he was kept in isolation 571 consecutive days.

Written by sara

September 9, 2010 at 7:10 am

Where Prison Law Meets Medical Privacy Law

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From the Boston Globe:

A federal judge in Boston ordered a former contractor for the state prison system yesterday to provide him with the psychiatric treatment records of about 25 inmates who committed or attempted suicide while in solitary confinement from 2005 to 2007.

US Chief District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf gave the University of Massachusetts Correctional Health Program until Aug. 27 to turn over thousands of pages of mental health reviews written by therapists after the suicides and attempts. He wants to determine whether he can legally turn them over to a nonprofit advocacy group that has sued the state over the care of mentally ill inmates.

UMass Correctional Health, which is not a defendant in the suit and is a program of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, contends that federal law requires the records to remain confidential under a privilege between psychotherapists and patients. The only way the privilege can be waived, UMass said yesterday, is if the inmates, or their representatives, give permission to release them.

As I’ve noted before, it’s long been observed that extended isolation yields disastrous mental health effects, and psychiatrists who’ve studied these effects consider long-term solitary confinement to be torture. On this subject, Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article remains a must-read overview.

Written by sara

August 12, 2010 at 5:47 am

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