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New York Civil Rights Violations Alleged by State Prisoners

New York State is being sued by a civil rights advocacy group on behalf of state prisoners who were reportedly banished to long periods of solitary confinement for infractions that were petty and nonviolent.Our New York City civil rights attorneys understand that some of the alleged violations included having too many cigarettes or not properly cleaning a cell. Guards were given a vast amount of discretion in terms of what infractions would trigger a solitary confinement stint. This led to blatant discrimination, with black prisoners in particular punished with isolation at a disproportionately inflated rate than prisoners of other races.

These stints inevitably caused prisoners to suffer severe psychological and physiological damage, according to the state chapter of the Civil Liberties Union. Solitary confinement is a form of punishment in which a prisoner is relegated to a small cell with little to no human contact or stimulus. They are given no more than one hour a day outside of the cell to exercise.

A 1995 study conducted by Harvard Medical School Psychiatrist Dr. Grassian found that even a few days of solitary confinement will affect brain scan readings to show abnormal patterns reflecting delirium.

Additionally, German researchers have even given a name to the psychiatric syndrome associated with long periods of solitary confinement: Ganser’s Syndrome. It’s characterized by massive amounts of anxiety, hyperresponsiveness to stimuli, vivid hallucinations of all kinds, acute confusion, sudden, violent outbursts, perceptual distortions and paranoid delusions.

As the Civil Liberties Union characterizes it: Torture.

The plaintiff in this case reportedly was given solitary confinement punishment on two different occasions – once for possessing diet pills and another for filing a false lien against D.A.’s office members who had prosecuted him. In all, his isolation totaled two years.

He was serving 16 years in Attica for rape.

Just before filing the suit, the Civil Liberties Union released a report in October called, “Boxed In,” which revealed that in addition to imposing extensive solitary confinement punishments, corrections officers would routinely deprive prisoners of showers, exercise and haircuts for innocuous offenses such as “poor demeanor.”

While the corrections department requires that such orders be reviewed every day, they have yet to cap the maximum amount of time a prisoner can spend in isolation. Plus, despite the requirement that such orders be reviewed, the organization found several incidents in which this was not done, in violation of its own regulations.

Some prisoners in isolation were deprived of edible food as a form of punishment — referred to by staffers as a “restricted diet.” This went on for up to a week before a disciplinary hearing – which determines guilt or innocence – was even held. This diet consists of a brick of vegetable-bread matter, cabbage and water.

The group also found that self-harm and suicide rates for these prisoners, as opposed to those who are serving their time in the general population, are much higher. However, rather than providing these prisoners with psychiatric care, they punish them for incidents of self-harm – with more solitary confinement. One prisoner, who had spent more than two decades in and out of extreme isolation, had a long history of cutting himself. After one incident, his punishment was four months of solitary confinement.

The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides employment litigation representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.

Additional Resources:
New York State Is Sued Over Use of Isolation in Its Prisons, Dec. 6, 2012, By Mosi Secret, The New York Times
More Blog Entries:
Great Neck Criminal Defense Attorneys Discuss False Convictions, May 23, 2012, New York City Civil Rights Attorney