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USA: fixing solitary confinement in New York state prisons

Victor Pate spent almost two years in solitary confinement in New York prisons, off and on. Once, he said, he was isolated for 90 days for having too many bed sheets in his room. Only two sheets were allowed per prisoner, but Pate was at his prison job when laundry pickup came, he said, so he kept a few extra sheets to ensure he would have clean ones.

Locked alone or with one other prisoner in cells that can be as small as an elevator for at least 22 hours a day, prisoners in solitary in New York don’t receive any meaningful rehabilitative programs or treatment, and often cannot even make phone calls. To Pate, it was like falling down an endless hole, with no one to reach for to remind him of his humanity. He began to hallucinate.

On any given day, around 4,500 people are in isolated confinement in New York State prisons. That’s over nine percent of the total number of prisoners, more than double the national average. Most people sent to isolation in these prisons spend months or years there, some more than two decades—there is no limit. A prisoner might be placed in solitary for myriad transgressions of prison rules, most of them non-violent. Black people are disproportionately represented in solitary, as are young people and people with mental illness.

One person who had been held in solitary in New York told Human Rights Watch: “I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out.… I [tried to hang myself] the first day.”

Physically and socially isolated for days, weeks, or months with no treatment, people can deteriorate psychologically. Over 40 percent of all suicides in New York prisons in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary, according to the Correctional Association of New York based on data obtained from the New York State Office of Mental Health.

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