Chris Gelardi


Prisons Are Illegally Throwing People With Disabilities Into Solitary Confinement

Read the full piece in New York Focus and the Albany Times Union

This is the second installment in a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.

Late last month, officials at the Albion Correctional Facility, a women’s prison halfway between Buffalo and Rochester, sent Doreen to solitary confinement as punishment for getting into a fight. (She said she was defending herself.) They kept her there for 15 days, the maximum allowed by a recently enacted solitary confinement reform law. But under that same law, the prison shouldn’t have put Doreen in solitary in the first place.

(“Doreen” is a pseudonym. Doreen’s mother, who spoke to New York Focus, requested that she and her daughter remain anonymous to avoid retaliation from prison officials.)

Under the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which went into effect across New York state on March 31, prisons and jails aren’t allowed to hold people with physical or mental disabilities in solitary for any length of time, for any reason. But prison staff placed Doreen in solitary confinement, isolating her in a cell for some 20 hours a day, even though she had a decade-old diagnosis for bipolar disorder and, according to her mother, a doctor at a county jail diagnosed her with schizophrenia before she entered prison last year. Albion gives her medication for both illnesses, her mother said.

Solitary confinement can take a heavy mental toll on anyone; international bodies have deemed prolonged solitary a form of torture. But people with disabilities, particularly mental illnesses, can be especially affected. The American Psychiatric Association has said that, with rare exceptions, prisons and jails shouldn’t place anyone with a serious mental illness in solitary, and that those who end up there “generally face bleak prospects of any medical improvement.”

Doreen isn’t the only person with a disability that New York prisons have been sending to solitary confinement. Data from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, show that since HALT went into effect nearly six months ago, prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical ailments to solitary, including dozens with the highest levels of health care needs.

As of September 1, four in 10 people in solitary confinement had documented mental health care needs, and more than one in 10 had conditions that required full-time mental health staff.

DOCCS has adopted internal policies at odds with HALT that allow prisons to place people with certain disabilities in solitary, New York Focus has found. Whereas HALT defined “disability” broadly, DOCCS has crafted its own definition, prohibiting solitary only for select populations among the most severely disabled.

In response to questions from New York Focus, DOCCS framed its disability policies as conforming to HALT, but referred to legal documents that do not support that contention. Legislators who sponsored the HALT bill say that DOCCS is effectively trying to write its own law.

“I don’t know why DOCCS isn’t just complying with the letter of the law. I think they’re really setting themselves up for serious litigation by not just complying,” said Julia Salazar, head of the state Senate’s corrections committee and the lead sponsor of HALT. “I think [the law] is quite clear. And I think they just don’t want to comply with it — or reckon with the fact that an enormous number of individuals in DOCCS facilities are living with a disability.”

The ban on sending people with disabilities to solitary is just one of several facets of HALT that New York prisons have been violating, with seemingly no consequences.

As New York Focus reported this month, DOCCS has been routinely ignoring the foundational tenet of HALT, which bars facilities from keeping people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. As of September 1, more than half of those in prison solitary — 276 people — had been there for longer than the legal limit. Many more are being held in “therapeutic” alternate isolation units, which incarcerated people report often violate HALT’s standards and can function as indefinite unofficial solitary.

Before solitary, Doreen was doing relatively well in prison, her mother said. Her medication had stopped the voices in her head, and she was excelling at a boot camp-like program that was earning her time off of her sentence. But when she was put in solitary, she was kicked out of the program, her mother said.

“What is this supposed to do?” she asked. “Someone that is bipolar, schizophrenic — their mental health, sitting in a cell all day on their own. They get suicidal.”

Doreen hasn’t spoken to her mother since she was sent to solitary confinement, as the prison has taken away her phone and visitation privileges until October, her mother said. Their only way of communicating is email.

In messages, Doreen has only told her mother that solitary was “horrible.”

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