[Ppnews] New York's Black Sites

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jul 12 14:51:44 EDT 2012

    New York's Black Sites

Jean Casella <http://www.thenation.com/authors/jean-casella> and James 
Ridgeway <http://www.thenation.com/authors/james-ridgeway>
July 11, 2012 | 

Johnny Tremont’s trip to solitary confinement started with having too 
many postage stamps. Until then, he’d been a model prisoner. When 
Tremont (whose name in this article has been changed at his request) 
entered the New York prison system at age 20, he was a well-spoken kid 
from an upstate college town who excelled at pretty much anything he put 
his mind to. In high school, he’d put his mind to dealing cocaine. Once 
he was sent to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum-security 
prison in the Finger Lakes region, he put his mind to keeping his nose 
clean and getting what he could out of his fifteen-year sentence. He 
enrolled in every program available, quickly earned his GED and then 
started tutoring other prisoners working toward theirs.

To relieve the monotony, Tremont sometimes bet on sports with other 
inmates, using the common prison currency of postage stamps. “I was on 
my way to pay the guy who won a pool between a few friends,” he recalls, 
when he was caught with 200 stamps, well over the allowable number. This 
earned him a month in “keeplock”—round-the-clock confinement to his own 
cell. His cellmate was also on keeplock, and when Tremont could no 
longer stand the crowding and idleness, he talked a guard into letting 
him out to go to his prison job. Caught playing basketball instead, he 
was sent to twenty-eight days in “the Box.”

“The Box” is how New York prisoners refer to solitary confinement. Less 
colloquially, it’s the SHU (pronounced “shoe”), for Special Housing 
Unit, the state’s euphemism for its isolation cells. Officially, New 
York places prisoners in “disciplinary” or “administrative” segregation, 
but regardless of the label, the conditions are the same as in prisons 
across the country: twenty-three hours a day in a cell the size of the 
average suburban bathroom.

A common misconception is that solitary confinement is a punishment of 
last resort, reserved for inmates who present a threat of violence or 
escape. The reality—especially in New York, which has the highest rate 
of “disciplinary segregation” in the country—is that it’s very much a 
punishment of first resort, doled out for minor rule violations as well 
as major offenses. In New York, the most common reason for a stint in 
solitary is creating a “disturbance” or “demonstration.” This can mean 
anything from mouthing off to guards to fomenting a riot, and it often 
involves inmates with psychoses or other psychiatric problems. Second is 
“dirty urine”—testing positive for drugs of any kind. In a prison system 
where 85 percent of inmates are in need of substance-abuse treatment, 
drug use alone can get you up to ninety days in solitary, and a year if 
it happens multiple times. Other infractions include refusing to obey 
orders, “interfering with employees,” being “out of place” and 
possession of contraband—not only a shiv but a joint, a cellphone or too 
many postage stamps.

With some 80,000 prisoners in solitary, the United States leads the 
world in isolating its citizens as well as incarcerating them. Though 
growing local and national movements are fighting solitary confinement 
as costly, dangerous and fundamentally inhumane—and though states from 
Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce its use—in this bluest 
of states, the prison system is in effect rigged to keep its plentiful 
isolation cells filled, and thousands of inmates spend weeks, months, 
years, even decades in solitary. On any given day, there are about 4,500 
men, women and children in some form of isolated confinement in New York 
State prisons. (In New York City’s jails, run under a separate system, 
there are close to 1,000 more.)

Twenty-eight days is a relatively short sentence in a state where 
prisoners can spend decades in the Box. But either way, conditions are 
so extreme, says Tremont, “there’s more of a difference between being in 
solitary confinement and being in general population than there is 
between being in prison and being in the free world.” In general 
population, he says, “you do your programming, go to meals, talk to 
people, and you can still manage to feel like a human being.” In the 
Box, “you’re like an animal in a cage.”

“We call it ‘no-touch torture,’” says Bonnie Kerness, who heads the 
American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project. “No one who 
has ever experienced more than the briefest time in solitary would call 
it anything else, because it was designed to destroy the mind and break 
the spirit.” While a lot of New Yorkers “are concerned with the torture 
that’s gone on in Iraq and Afghanistan or at Guantánamo,” she adds, 
“they’re living with black sites in their own backyards.”

* * *

Whether solitary confinement as practiced in New York can be considered 
torture is an age-old question. When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave 
de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 to research the American 
penitentiary system, a primary stop was New York’s Auburn Prison, which 
had recently conducted an “experiment”: locking eighty prisoners in 
round-the-clock isolation for a year. Some had gone insane, while others 
attempted suicide; five had died, apparently from a combination of ill 
health and pure despair. Of the twenty-six prisoners who were 
subsequently released, fourteen quickly reoffended, offering “proofs,” 
according to Tocqueville and Beaumont, “that this system, fatal to the 
health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their 

New York abandoned the practice of “absolute solitude,” as Tocqueville 
and Beaumont called it, only to resume it a century and a half later, 
with none of the spirit of inquiry that informed the Auburn 
“experiment.” Today the little research that exists supports their 
conclusions: that solitary confinement can lead to madness and suicide, 
and that it tends to increase both prison violence and recidivism. 
States that have dramatically reduced their use of isolation have seen 
improvements in the safety of inmates and staff. Why, then, does 
“liberal” New York have one of the nation’s highest rates of solitary 
confinement? And why have these levels persisted, even through years 
when the state’s prison population—and crime rate—have dropped?

In fact, it was New York’s liberal Republican governor, Nelson 
Rockefeller, who passed the harshest drug laws in the country, and it 
was his Democratic successor, Mario Cuomo, who began building prisons to 
hold the resultant twofold surge in the state’s inmate population. Under 
President Bill Clinton, the federal government offered states generous 
funding for prison construction if they agreed to reduce or end parole 
for violent crimes. New York complied, using much of the bounty to 
construct “supermax” prisons and isolated confinement units. Ten of New 
York’s eleven facilities dedicated exclusively to holding prisoners in 
lockdown were constructed between 1997 and 2000, according to the 
Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit with the 
legislative authority to monitor New York’s state prisons. And they were 
built despite the fact that, by 1996, violence levels in the prison 
system had already begun to drop.

In the past decade, New York’s prison population has decreased by nearly 
10,000, to approximately 56,000. In the same period, the number of 
prisoners in isolated confinement has fallen from about 5,000 to 4,500. 
But this means the proportion of prisoners in lockdown has actually 
/increased/ slightly, to just over 8 percent. New York maintains two 
supermax prisons where all inmates are in lockdown (although it eschews 
the term “supermax”). Most others have some kind of segregation unit. 
What these various manifestations of the Box have in common is that they 
combine near total cell confinement with extreme social isolation and 
enforced idleness, since prisoners in lockdown are not allowed to work 
or attend programming. They are also categorically barred from visits by 
the media (including us) and invisible even to many prison authorities.

Mary Beth Pfeiffer, who has reported on the SHUs for the /Poughkeepsie 
Journal/ (she, too, is now barred from visiting them), has described the 
Box as “a small barren chamber…with a concrete floor, a steel door and 
no clock to mark the time. The essential quality of the box is 
isolation—a gloved hand passes food through a slot in the door; a 
caseworker’s muffled voice filters through the holes in a small 
Plexiglas window. Inmates are allowed few personal possessions. Lights 
are never fully extinguished. It is four walls for 23 hours a day—a 
psychologically punishing experience by design.”

Jack Beck, director of the Correctional Association’s Prison Visiting 
Project, has “walked the SHUs” and talked with inmates, usually through 
their feeding slots. He describes a grim world of small, sometimes 
windowless cells where the sensory deprivation is so extreme that most 
prisoners spend their time sleeping, pacing or staring into space. In 
some units, Beck says, fully half of the inmates suffer from mental 
illness, so “there would be feces on the walls, there would be people 
howling into the night,” even “people harming themselves” through 
self-mutilation. “This, I believe, is torture, in any definition.”

* * *

In New York, a trip to solitary begins with a “ticket,” a disciplinary 
write-up from a guard. Every year, the state doles out more than 10,000 
tickets that result in Box time. The average sentence is between four 
and five months, but sentences of several years are not unusual. Inmates 
can challenge the tickets, but John Boston, who heads the Prisoners’ 
Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society of New York, calls the hearings 
a “pro forma exercise” offering nothing more than the “pretense of due 
process.” Prison officials serve as police, prosecutors, witnesses, 
judges and juries. One of the few places inmates can turn to for help 
fighting a SHU sentence in court is Prisoners’ Legal Services of New 
York. But in the past twenty years, the group has had its funding cut to 
the bone. As a result, says James Bogin, managing attorney at the Albany 
office, its members can represent only a small number of the prisoners 
who write to them. There are others, he says, “who could be subject to 
real torture, and I can’t take their case.”

Prisoners who contest their treatment risk retaliation in the form of 
more Box time, and those accused of violating rules inside the Box are 
further punished with more time or “deprivation orders.” These can 
include shackles, loss of recreation time and showers, or seven days or 
more on “the loaf”—described by one advocacy group as “a dense, binding, 
unpalatable one-pound loaf of bread and a side portion of raw cabbage.” 
A Correctional Association survey of SHU inmates found that nearly 
one-third of them had been put on the loaf—one for fifty-six days.

Because they are basically invisible, prisoners placed in the SHU are 
also more likely to receive off-the-books punishment from the guards, up 
to and including physical brutality. Michael Mushlin, a law professor at 
Pace University, calls the Box “fertile ground for abuse, because there 
are no witnesses to what happens there—not even other prisoners.”

The New York State Corrections Department has denied that unwarranted 
use of force routinely takes place in the SHU. And one former guard, who 
worked for more than a decade at several upstate prisons, told us that 
“any officer who has worked in the SHU doesn’t look for altercations, 
because they happen all the time” and are initiated by the prisoners. He 
points out that corrections officers sustain abuse and injuries 
themselves, often at the hand of inmates with untreated mental illness. 
Like most who have guarded the SHU, he recalls being frequently cursed, 
spat upon, even spattered with urine and feces. He also suffered broken 
bones while trying to subdue a prisoner there.

At the same time, nearly every one of the dozen inmates we spoke or 
corresponded with reported experiencing some form of abuse while in 
segregation. Several said that racism was frequently a factor, 
especially in upstate prisons where almost all of the corrections 
officers are white. Eighty-two percent of New York’s prison population 
is black or Latino.

Malik Sheppard, a soft-spoken African-American man, spent nine years in 
continuous solitary confinement out of a total prison term of fifteen 
years. Sheppard started running with the Bloods in Queens when he was 
barely in his teens and, at 17, was arrested for armed robbery. Like all 
other 16- and 17-year-olds accused of felonies in New York, he was tried 
in an adult court and sent to an adult prison.

According to Sheppard, he got Box time for violent run-ins with other 
prisoners. At the Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax some 250 
miles from the city, he says he was sent to a “Box within the Box”—a 
special unit meant for the worst offenders—where guards tormented him 
because of his gang affiliation, and also because he sometimes “cursed 
them out.” For three years, “I was on and off the loaf…. They turned my 
water off for days at a time…. In the winter, they would open my window 
and I wouldn’t be able to close it.” The only exercise he had was in an 
eight-by-twelve cage, where “my shackles stay on my feet, my handcuffs 
stay on, waist chain stays on—so I shuffle in circles.”

By far the worst, Sheppard says, was the thirteen-day period he spent in 
a completely bare “strip cell” wearing only a paper gown. “Every hour on 
the hour, my cell would get hosed down while I was in there,” he 
recalls. He does not hesitate to compare it to Guantánamo: “I was 
tortured in prison.”

* * *

Concern has grown in recent years over the number of prisoners with 
psychological problems who end up in the SHU. A 2003 report by the 
Correctional Association found that while inmates diagnosed with mental 
illness made up 11 percent of New York’s overall prison population, they 
constituted nearly a quarter of the inmates in lockdown. Many of the SHU 
prisoners interviewed were described as “actively psychotic, manic, 
paranoid or seemingly overmedicated.” In New York, throwing urine or 
feces at a prison employee—behavior that is not uncommon among mentally 
ill prisoners in solitary—has been made a felony. Other symptoms of 
mental illness have been criminalized as well. As a result, a prisoner 
like Adam Hall—an Attica inmate whose initial sentence was one to three 
years—could spend up to a decade behind bars because of his mental illness.

Hall grew up outside Utica; when he was 5 years old, he set his 
apartment on fire and then drew pictures of his family reuniting in 
heaven. Hall’s mother says that he spent much of his childhood in 
psychiatric facilities and juvenile homes and was sexually abused in two 
of them. After a series of run-ins with the law, at 22 he was convicted 
of assault after stealing a friend’s car and resisting arrest.

According to prison records, Hall attempted suicide and was placed in a 
Residential Mental Health Unit, where prisoners are locked down for much 
of the day but receive psychiatric treatment. There, he reportedly tried 
to set fire to his cell. Instead of dealing with this incident as a 
symptom of Hall’s obvious mental illness, prison officials sent his case 
to a grand jury, which indicted him for second-degree arson. Hall pled 
out and was sentenced to an additional six to nine years. Meanwhile, he 
owes the prison about $5,000 for damage to his cell, so his commissary 
account has been frozen and he cannot buy postage stamps. When he does 
manage to write or call home, he talks about cutting himself “to relieve 
the pain.” One day soon, he writes, “I’m going to really cut myself and 
not tell no one so I can bleed out.”

The /Poughkeepsie Journal/’s Mary Beth Pfeiffer studied prison suicides 
in New York and found that, in a three-year period between 2007 and 
2010, inmates in the Box killed themselves at a rate five times higher 
per capita than those in the general population. Some of the prisoners 
who took their own lives were serving long terms in solitary, while 
others had been in the Box for as little as one week.

“I’ve cut my share of them down,” says the former corrections officer 
who spent years guarding the SHU. In one instance, “we cut a guy down 
and resuscitated him, and then he assaulted us because he was upset that 
we’d saved his life.” Another prisoner, he says, repeatedly attempted 
suicide by jumping off his bunk head first onto the concrete floor. “I 
still have my own nightmares about the SHU,” he adds.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist and former faculty member at Harvard 
Medical School who has studied the impact of prison isolation for 
decades, believes that solitary confinement induces a specific 
psychiatric disorder characterized by “hypersensitivity to external 
stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive 
thinking, paranoia and impulse-control problems.” Inmates with 
underlying mental illness have even worse reactions, so they “get into 
these vicious cycles where they continue to commit this disruptive 
behavior, and they continue to go deeper and deeper into the belly of 
the prison system and get sicker and sicker.”

* * *

On June 19 a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chaired by Illinois Democrat 
Dick Durbin held the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary 
confinement. Focused on the “human rights, fiscal and public safety 
consequences” of the practice, the hearing signaled a new level of 
official concern over its widespread use. Among those who testified was 
Anthony Graves, exonerated from Texas death row after eighteen years, 
ten of which he spent in isolation. He discussed suicides and self-harm 
by other prisoners and described how he remains haunted by his own years 
in solitary. “Today I have a hard time being around a group of people 
for long periods of time without feeling too crowded,” he testified. “No 
one can begin to imagine the effect isolation has on a human being.”

The hearing also featured Christopher Epps, commissioner of the 
Mississippi Department of Corrections, whose reduction of solitary 
confinement in his state (largely under pressure from the ACLU) won 
national acclaim. The few states that have reduced their SHU 
populations—some by as much as 75 percent—have seen drops in both prison 
violence and, ultimately, prison costs.

In New York, reform has been modest and hard-won. In 2002, advocates 
started an effort to ban mentally ill inmates from being placed in the 
SHUs. Family members and former inmates joined a coalition of activists 
to form Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, which 
organized a “Boot the SHU” campaign. “We held marches and press 
conferences,” says Leah Gitter, the godmother of a former SHU prisoner 
named Robert Pena. “We did street theater in Albany—we had a funeral 
march, referring to suicides in the SHU.” They also baked “the loaf” and 
handed it out to state senators.

In 2008 the “SHU exclusion bill” was finally signed into law. Sarah 
Kerr, who is tracking its application for the Legal Aid Society, calls 
it “a sea change” that will “alleviate the suffering” of hundreds of 
prisoners with mental illness. “But it isn’t perfect,” she says. While 
all prisoners are now screened for “serious mental illness,” critics 
charge that the state Office of Mental Health, which handles the 
diagnoses, tends to be overly conservative. And the law still allows for 
mentally ill prisoners to be held in the SHU under “exceptional 

A nascent coalition of advocates organized by the New York Civil 
Liberties Union is pressing for more change, and a parallel reform 
effort is under way for city jails. The notion of reform is less 
controversial than it was even a few years ago; at a forum in January 
held by the New York State Bar Association, Corrections Department 
Commissioner Brian Fischer insisted that some segregation was necessary, 
but “I’ll be the first to admit—we overuse it.” Even modest reductions, 
he said, would require that they “change the culture” of corrections, 
including the stance of the correctional officers union. And, he added, 
“we can’t make changes without funding, without the legislature and the 

If New York was serious about reducing the population of inmates in 
isolation, those with mental illness could be moved from the SHUs into 
secure psychiatric facilities, which could conceivably take the place of 
costly supermax prisons. Prisoners who test positive for drugs could be 
sent to drug-treatment programs (which currently have long waiting 
lists). Other offenses could be dealt with through positive incentives 
or by terms in segregation that are brief, limited and free of extreme 
isolation. All of this would take political will to implement, and 
something more: a shift in public sentiment toward the view that 
prisoners are human beings, and thus entitled to immunity from torture 
by the state.

In 2010 the American Bar Association created a set of Standards on 
Treatment of Prisoners, including those in segregation. But enforcing 
such standards would require prison practices—as well as the politics 
that shape them—to be driven by a genuine interest in safety, rather 
than a thirst for the harshest punishments possible.

Michael Mushlin recalls a former corrections official who had placed 
inmates in solitary confinement once asking him frankly, “Do you think 
I’m a torturer?” But Mushlin believes the responsibility lies with a 
broader constituency. “/We/ are the torturers,” he says. “If we gave 
prisons the resources they needed and said, ‘Stop this,’ it would stop.”

* * *

In the meantime, men like Billy Blake will continue to be used to 
justify solitary confinement. In 1987, while in county court on a drug 
charge, Blake, then 23, grabbed a gun from a sheriff’s deputy and, in a 
failed escape attempt, murdered one deputy and wounded another. As a 
cop-killer and an escape risk, Blake is considered a permanent threat to 
prison safety. For this reason, he is one of the few New York prisoners 
in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s 
in solitary more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma 
reviews of his status. He has been in isolation in a series of prisons 
for close to twenty-five years. He is now 48; since his sentence is 
seventy-seven years to life, he has no prospect of getting out of 
prison, and next to none of ever leaving solitary.

We visited Blake in December at the Elmira Correctional Facility, a 
dreary building on a hill near the edge of town. After being signed in 
and searched, we stopped at the vending machines to buy what he had 
requested in a letter: Dr. Pepper and a pizza roll. (The machine was 
out, so we got a grayish-looking cheese steak instead.) We then waited 
in a special SHU visiting room, watched over by a guard.

Blake entered—wiry, sandy-haired and smiling—and talked virtually 
nonstop for three hours. It was the first time he’d had a visit in more 
than two years. We discussed his childhood (he says his father was 
abusive), his poetry (some of which he recites by heart), his love of 
playing the stock market (he sometimes gives tips to the guards), and 
his fascination with military history (his dream is to someday walk the 
battlefields at Omaha Beach and Thermopylae). He described abuse in the 
SHU, some of it confirmed by a lawsuit he won in 2000. And he told us 
how bad he feels about having deprived two children of their father when 
“the one thing I never wanted to do was hurt kids.”

We do not know whether the man we met is too dangerous to be in the 
general population. We do know that the treatment he is receiving from 
the state can only be described as torture.

Blake’s subsequent letters, which run twenty-five pages or more, 
describe his “magic ingredient” for surviving the Box. “I’m a dreamer,” 
he says, “who refuses to accept that my dreams won’t all come true, 
somehow…eventually.” Dreaming is what helps him get through the long, 
colorless nights in the SHU. “Sometimes I watch the roaches and I envy 
them,” he writes.

“In my mind I have fantasized that I was a cockroach and I maneuver all 
through the halls of the prison, walk under the locked gates and stay 
close to the walls to avoid being stepped on by a C.O. who’s walking 
through the prison. Then I get outside through some crack or under some 
door, walk through the grass that looks like tall trees to me…then I’m 
up and over the wall and out. Once I make it I pop myself back to being 
human and I walk off into the night, free again and not even caring if I 
die that same night, just as long as I can see some trees and feel a 
breeze and know for an hour or two that I was free again, that I lived 
to see the outside of prison before my time in this world was over.”

Jean Casella <http://www.thenation.com/authors/jean-casella> and James 
Ridgeway <http://www.thenation.com/authors/james-ridgeway>
July 11, 2012 | This article appeared in the July 30-August 6, 2012 
edition of The Nation. 
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