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Solitary Confinement Used Too Often In State Prisons, NYCLU Finds

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A new report released Tuesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union suggests, in many cases, that prisoners who spend long periods of time in solitary confinement eventually amounts to cruel and inhuman punishment. NY1's Kristen Shaughnessy filed the following report.

With a mock isolation cell in the background, Sade Jackson spoke to reporters about her 21-year-old brother who has been in solitary confinement for a year. Solitary is 23 hours a day with limited human contact, and an hour for exercise in an area referred to as "the kennel."

"It is inhumane. We don't even treat dogs that way," Jackson said.

After speaking to more than 100 people who are or have been in solitary confinement at its Manhattan headquarters, the New York Civil Liberties Union made its case that the New York State Department of Corrections is putting too many prisoners in solitary and it should be used for only the most violent offenders.

"It is almost cavalierly doled out to people for the most minor of offenses: Substance abuse, talking back, and I'm not making this up, 'having too many postage stamps,'" said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman.

According to the NYCLU, on any given day nearly 4,500 prisoners in the state are held in segregated housing. Last year, about one out of every four prisoners in New York was put in solitary. The report adds that from 2007 to 2011 only 16 percent of isolation sentences were for assault or weapons.

"About half of these individuals are locked down alone in a cell the size of a typical elevator. The other half are locked down with another prisoner in a cell the size of a parking space," said NYCLU Legal Fellow Scarlet Kim.

The NYCLU also showed a letter from one prisoner, identified only as Marcus, who was put in isolation for four months for offenses like tattooing himself and not reporting to work duty.

In it, he writes, "My first cell was flooded with trash, chicken bones, papers, banana peels, bread. The C.O.’s would pick up our mail and rip it up in front of our door. I feel like I was abused. It definitely made me feel like a zoo animal."

There is a national debate over whether holding prisoners in extreme isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Some states are moving away from the practice and federal hearings were held this summer.

The NYCLU hopes its study will force the state corrections department to reexamine the way it decides who and who does not go to solitary confinement.

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