Late last year, we made several requests to be permitted, as members of the press, to view solitary confinement units in New York’s state prisons. After receiving no reply, we were fortunate enough to enlist the help of a pro bono attorney, Daniel Mulkoff with the firm of Cuti Hecker and Wang, who approached the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on our behalf. This finally yielded a response, in the form of a blanket rejection of any request to view such facilities. Their letter appears below.
The response was neither surprising, nor unique to New York. Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units, as we’ve written before, are America’s domestic black sites, off-limits to the media as well as the public. However, in recent times several states have loosened up on their restrictions. Colorado has allowed National Geographic, among others, to film inside its state supermax. Maine allowed Frontline inside its solitary confinement unit. Even California has allowed some (controlled and limited) access to its notorious supermax, Pelican Bay.
New York appears unwilling to make any such concessions. It’s clear that New York intends to keep its isolation facilities out of view of the media–and, by extension, the public. The federal courts are largely on their side. If this is to change, that change must come through public pressure for policy change or via legislation. In the meantime, our correspondents inside prison, who often risk retaliation by writing to tell us about conditions in solitary, remain virtually our only window into this secret world.
The post New York Prisons Bar Media from Solitary Confinement Units appeared first on Solitary Watch.
“When women are moved to the Segregation Unit for mental health or disciplinary reasons, they are strip searched. With four or more officers present, the inmate must: take off all her clothes, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands and cough, and stand up and face the wall. If the woman is menstruating, she must remove her tampon or pad and hand it to a guard. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male.”
This is a description of what has happened when women are taken to solitary confinement at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Chicopee. The procedure has been followed not only for women being sent to isolation for violating jail rules but also women who are being placed on suicide watch or who have requested protective custody. Since September 15, 2008, on approximately 274 occasions, a male corrections officer recorded the strip search with a handheld video camera; 178 women were affected by this practice.
In 2009, Debra Baggett wrote a letter to the law office of Howard Friedman about this practice. The office, which has been involved in a number of cases involving prisoner rights and strip searches, investigated Baggett’s complaints. “We found that the jail had a written policy allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches,” stated David Milton, the attorney representing the women. When the jail refused to change its policy, Baggett and a group of other women held at the jail filed suit.
On April 22, 2014, a federal judge heard arguments in Baggett v. Ashe, the class-action lawsuit which now represents 178 women. At the center of the suit is the jail’s practice of allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches of women being moved to the jail’s segregation unit. The jail has argued that male officers do not watch the searches while filming.
Jails and prisons — and especially women’s facilities — are notorious as sites of sexual violence and abuse. Women make up just 7 percent of state and federal prisoners in the United States, but they are the victims in 33 percent of all sexual assaults by prison staff. In addition to these physical assaults, women in jails and prisons have reported incidents of sexual humiliation by male officers, from making frequent sexual comments to watching them as they shower.
Even against this backdrop of routine sexual abuse, the practice at Western Massachusetts Regional WCC appears extreme. Attorney David Milton stated that the practice is very rare. “No one knows of anywhere else that does this. It’s so intuitively wrong, it hasn’t come up,” he said. Advocates and formerly incarcerated women elsewhere have confirmed that they have not heard or experienced the practice in their states.
This doesn’t mean that videotaping strip searches has never happened. In the 1990s, New York State’s Albion Correctional Facility came under fire for allowing male guards to watch women being strip searched. Although female guards were the ones holding the cameras, male guards were allowed to watch the strip searches and the videotaping through a partially open door. Albion began the practice of videotaping strip searches in January 1994, claiming that the practice would prevent abuse. Women at Albion, however, said that the videotaping — and allowing male guards to watch the searches — were part of a system wide pattern of sexual abuse within the prison, including sexual assault and impregnation by staff.
After a fight, Leonides Cruz was brought to Albion’s Special Housing Unit (where individuals are held in solitary confinement, or segregation). Cruz described her experience to the New York Daily News:
When I got there, [officers] brought in a video camera and told me to strip completely.It was this really unsanitary room like a closet. There were two female officers taping, but the door was opened a crack and two male officers were looking in. They had me first touch my body and then my mouth. This is not the way it’s supposed to be you have to touch the mouth first, because you could get an infection if you touch certain parts of your body and then put your fingers in your mouth. I had to bend over . . . in front of the camera it was so embarrassing and humiliating. I wouldn’t fight it because I knew that things would get worse for me. When they finished video-taping and I came out they were all laughing.”
At Albion, videotaping and other forms of sexual humiliation occurred not just to women sent to solitary. Another woman described being strip searched, videotaped and humiliated upon her arrival at Albion:
The sergeant escorted me in there and I saw they had turned on the cameras. In the room there were two female officers standing in this dirty room, with a filthy floor . . . Two male officers were standing outside, and I could see them looking in. They started filming and asked me to strip one piece of clothing at a time, like a striptease. This is a medium-security facility, I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I told them that they weren’t supposed to do this since I was stripped in the other facility and handed off. They’re only supposed to do this if there is probable cause. After my clothes came off, they asked me to lift my breasts. Then they told me to turn around . . . I was so humiliated that I started to cry, and the officer laughed and said, “Tears don’t cut it here you’re in a real jail now.”
In August 1994, Prisoners’ Legal Services threatened a lawsuit against New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). In response, DOCCS offered a settlement of $1000 per incident to each woman. Albion also stopped the practice of videotaping strip searches. Publicity about the videotaping and the prison’s systemic sexual abuse by staff members also prompted State Senator Catherine Abate to draft legislation making it a crime for staff to have sex with prisoners. The bill passed and was signed into law in July 1996.
However neither the settlement nor subsequent legislation stopped the pervasive sexual abuse and assault in New York State prisons. In January 2003, nearly a decade after the settlement, the Prisoners’ Right Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York and a private law firm filed Amador v. Andrews, a class action lawsuit on behalf of women imprisoned in New York State who had been sexually abused by staff. The suit charged that prison staff subjected women to numerous instances of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape. (Four years later, in December 2007, the court dismissed the claims on the grounds that most of the women had failed to exhaust the prison grievance system. This despite the fact that they had complained to the prison system’s Inspector General, which is where grievances about sexual abuse are referred.)
Strip searches are one way that jail and prison staff can sexually humiliate and abuse the people that they guard. But because strip searches are everyday practice in many facilities, they are not covered by legislation designed to prevent sexual abuse, such as Albion’s bill or the Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to MassLive.com, “lawyers from both sides [of Baggett v. Ashe] noted the lack of case law on whether cross-gender videotaping of strip searches runs afoul of Constitutional rights”–meaning the case could be precedent-setting.
As they await the judge’s decision, David Milton, the attorney representing Baggett and the 177 other women, noted that the lawsuit has already had some effect: “As a result of this lawsuit, the WCC has virtually eliminated the practice of male guards videotaping strip searches. Now it happens less than one percent of the time. If we’re successful, we hope that the success of this lawsuit will send a message that women prisoners retain a core of human dignity and privacy that cannot be violated.”
The post On the Way to Solitary, Women in Massachusetts Jail Get Strip Searched and Videotaped appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Representative Cedric Richmond (LA-02) introduced the first-ever federal legislation addressing the use of solitary confinement, called the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014. If passed, the bill would create funding for the development of best practices, which would subsequently be put in place in federal facilities. Richmond said, “Our approach to solitary confinement in this country needs immediate reform. The practices imposed on prisoners, including the seriously mentally ill and juveniles, at all levels of our penal system raise significant 8th amendment concerns and it is time we have this conversation about what kind of country we are.”
• Hundreds of people from across the state gathered in Albany to show support for a bill that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails. Capital News Tonight hosted a panel about the bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.
• In the wake of a hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) has introduced a bill to improve conditions inside federal immigration lock-ups. The Accountability in Immigration Detention act would, among other things, prohibit placing detainees in solitary confinement in retaliation for whistleblowing.
• The AP published an in-depth account on the last hours of Jerome Murdough, who was found dead in his cell on Riker’s Island in February 2014. Murdough was being held in solitary confinement on the newly-opened mental health unit when his cell overheated; according to the AP report repair workers were not available to fix the problem due to the long holiday weekend. He had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell of a public housing building, but had been unable to post the $2,500 bail.
• A local New Mexico outlet, KUNM, published the third part of an ongoing series about solitary confinement in the state.
• An interfaith alliance in Milwaukee held an event to highlight the number of individuals in the state being held in prison past their parole date, many of whom remain in solitary confinement. The session was attended by several representatives from the state legislature. A Buddhist chaplain involved in the campaign to halve the prison rolls also published an op-ed in a Madison paper.
• People in prison and advocacy groups in California who were involved in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes have offered their position on two bills currently moving through the California state legislature. They support Assembly Bill 1652, which would prohibit the state from placing individuals in solitary confinement simply on the suspicion that they belong to a gang (“gang validation”); they oppose Senate Bill 892, which was designed to achieve more comprehensive reforms, because it neither explicitly prohibits “gang validation” nor indeterminate terms in solitary confinement units. The San Francisco Bay View published a letter from four former hunger strikers about their perspectives on the legislation.
• Amnesty International USA has launched an investigation into the deaths of two New Jersey men who died in prison. One man, Robert Taylor, was allegedly placed in a restraining jacket in solitary confinement despite the fact that he was going through alcohol withdrawal.