Years in Disciplinary Segregation Constitutes Cruel, Degrading Treatment and Fails to Provide Needed Care
March 24, 2009
New York inmates with substance use problems - 85 percent by prison officials' own count - find themselves in a Catch 22. Many can't get timely treatment, making them vulnerable to being punished with segregation. And once there, they are barred as a matter of policy from the treatment they need.
Megan McLemore, health and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch

New York State's practice of sentencing inmates to months, even years, in disciplinary segregation for drug use and possession and denying them effective drug dependence treatment constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

In the 53-page report, "Barred from Treatment: Punishment of Drug Users in New York State Prisons," Human Rights Watch found that New York prison officials sentenced inmates to a collective total of 2,516 years in disciplinary segregation from 2005 to 2007 for drug-related charges. At the same time, inmates seeking drug treatment face major delays because treatment programs are filled to capacity. When sentenced to segregation, known as "the box," inmates are not allowed to get or continue to receive treatment. Conditions in the box are harsh, with prisoners locked down 23 hours a day and contact with the outside through visitors, packages, and telephone calls severely restricted.

"New York inmates with substance use problems - 85 percent by prison officials' own count - find themselves in a Catch 22," said Megan McLemore, health and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Many can't get timely treatment, making them vulnerable to being punished with segregation. And once there, they are barred as a matter of policy from the treatment they need."

The report is based on more than 50 interviews with current and recently released inmates, as well as prison treatment program staff and correctional health, drug treatment, and harm reduction experts in New York and other states.

One case profiled in the report is that of David A., who is currently serving three years in isolation for prison drug violations. Despite pleading for treatment, David was recently sentenced to an additional two years in the box for a marijuana violation. In 2008, New York State spent $20 million on alcohol and drug treatment in the prisons.

"These programs are being paid for by New York taxpayers, so should be effective and rigorously evaluated," McLemore said. "The current policies make no sense from either a security or public health perspective."

Sentencing inmates to years in isolation for drug infractions while denying them access to treatment can amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in violation of the United States' international human rights obligations.

"Discipline should be proportionate to the offense, and should never prevent prisoners from getting the treatment they need," McLemore said. "This only makes the problem worse, for both the inmates and the prison system as a whole."

At a Capitol news conference with New York State legislators Jeff Aubry, Felix Ortiz, and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, McLemore called on state lawmakers to provide greater oversight of prison drug treatment, stating that the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) should be more involved in designing and evaluating prison drug programs. The Department of Correctional Services has conducted few evaluations of its own treatment programs.

Despite overwhelming evidence that medication-assisted therapy is the most effective treatment for opiate addiction, the majority of New York State prisoners dependent on heroin or other opiates have no access to methadone or buprenorphine, Human Rights Watch said. The report also documents New York's failure to implement effective HIV and hepatitis C prevention programs.

"Prisons in California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and many other places are making condoms available and providing methadone or buprenorphine without compromising security," said McLemore. "There is no legitimate reason why New York State cannot do the same."

As New York State lawmakers push for reform to "Rockefeller" mandatory-minimum drug laws, Human Rights Watch called for changes to current substance abuse programs and disciplinary practices as well.

"Reforming the Rockefeller drug laws to prevent drug users from being sentenced to long prison sentences is critically important," said McLemore. "But timely and effective programs must be available to serve the inmates still in prison."

Quotes from New York State lawmakers:

"Most inmates will eventually return to our communities and we must ensure strong and effective treatment programs during incarceration in order to increase the likelihood of their success upon release. Denying treatment to inmates who suffer from a drug dependency is illogical and counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation. Further, I feel strongly that in-prison substance abuse programs should be subject to oversight by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services in order to ensure effective treatment and promote a continuum of care upon release."
- NY State Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, chair of the Committee on Corrections

"We must ensure accountability within prisons; we need to make sure that treatment services are going where they are needed. At the same time, we need to ensure that we are funding education and prevention programs to stop the cycle of drug crime."
- NY State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, chair of the Committee on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment

Quotes from prisoners interviewed in the report:

"I was in the ASAT program at Attica until a few weeks ago. They discontinued the program because staff was transferred, and now the waiting list is over 1,000. Even though I get priority, here is a notice telling me that ‘it could be a long time' until I get into treatment again. There's plenty of room for me in the box, but not in a program."
- James W., prisoner at Attica Correctional Facility

"I've had six or seven dirty urines. Never any violence, just drugs. I got a year in [the box], then 18 months, then a year. [...] I've been in the box 14 months on the last ticket and just got another 20 months in here for possession."
- Nathan T., prisoner at Upstate Correctional Facility

"I've had 15, 16 drug tickets. No assaults or anything like that. I've never been in a treatment program. Now I'm in the box 'til 2012. I'm a drug addict. If you know I'm a drug addict, why are you putting me in a box?"
- Peter G., prisoner at Southport Correctional Facility

"I've been in the box since 2004 on one drug ticket after another. I'm going to max out my sentence in here. I'll go home with the same habit I came in with."
- Lawrence Y., prisoner at Southport Correctional Facility