Push for review of using solitary confinement
The case of a convicted murderer from Onondaga County is playing a major role in a new debate over New York State's use of solitary confinement for prison inmates. Billy Blake is a third of the way through a prison term of 77 years to life for the 1987 shooting death of sheriff's deputy David Clark. In the second of his reports on the debate, YNN's Bill Carey says the Blake case is being used to try to force a review at the state and even the international level.
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NEW YORK STATE -- The time Billy Blake is spending in prison bars is not out of line with others convicted of similar crimes. What is different is how he has spent his years behind bars.
“I've been in the box my entire 25 years in prison, which you people call solitary confinement, what the prison administrators call the special housing unit or SHU for short,” Blake said.
For hundreds of years, a debate has raged over use of solitary confinement. Now, even the United Nations is calling for a change, saying that long stays in special housing units amount to torture.
“I propose a worldwide ban on prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement,” said Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.
“Our letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur asks him to take a look at what's going on in New York,” said Taylor Pendergrass, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney.
The New York Civil Liberties Union and several other groups want a U.N. Review of Special Housing in New York prisons.
A class action suit, filed last year, has already won the promise of a state review.
Pendergrass said, “Unfortunately, that process is entirely internal. It hasn't been opened up to mental health professionals. It hasn't been opened up in any significant way and I think it's very important that whatever review process is undertaken be done with the full collaboration of everyone who is a stakeholder in this question.”
The civil liberties union says that, at any given time, eight percent of the state's inmate population is being held in special housing: 4,500 inmates in solitary confinement each day.
“They're essentially being warehoused for months and years and, in Mr. Blake's case, decades at a time,” Pendergrass said. “ The rationale for keeping him there is not because he's any kind of present danger, but it's based on his criminal conviction and his acts, which are now two decades plus old.”
Opponents say other states have brought an end to extensive use of solitary confinement and found their prisons are safer and inmates released at the end of their sentences are less likely to be involved in violent crime. Now, they claim, it's New York's turn to act.
“And doing so will not only improve safety in our prisons and in our communities, but will also meet our basic obligations to treat everyone, even those we incarcerate, with respect for their constitutional rights and their human rights as well,” Pendergrass said.
The civil liberties union says it recognizes that "special housing" or solitary confinement may be necessary from time to time for security or inmate safety reasons. But it argues prolonged use of what's termed "extreme isolation" can cause physical and mental suffering.