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Advocates speak out on brutality in jails

STEPHON JOHNSON AmsterdamNewsStaff | 3/14/2013, 4:22 p.m.

Last Thursday in lower Manhattan, activists and advocates rallied and spoke out about violence in local prisons, particularly on violence in solitary confinement and what it does to a person's mental state.

The New York City Jails Action Coalition, the Urban Justice Center and other advocates protested the alleged pattern of brutality in New York City jails after three people were recently assaulted in solitary confinement. The advocates claim that mental health staff at Rikers Island witnessed the three assaults. They are under investigation by the inspector general, Board of Correction and Department of Justice.

On Dec. 17, 2012, several individuals on the same cellblock tried to alert a correction officer because they hadn't had phone access or hot food. Two of the people eventually splashed the guards with water, which led to a search of several people's cells. According to reports, as the individuals were forcibly removed from their cells, the correction staff became violent, beating one young man for 45 minutes leaving him with a fractured hand and an opening on the right side of his skull. The reports go on to say that the beatings continued for other young men throughout the clinic, including a young man who was beaten while handcuffed to a gurney in front of mental health staff. Other inmates provided similar accounts of the incidents in question.

These assaults followed the death of Jason Echevarria in August. He was killed in the same solitary confinement unit.

Jennifer Parish, director of criminal advocacy at the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center, spoke at the rally and let the council know about the atrocities hidden within the walls of solitary confinement.

"The New York City Department of Correction has a responsibility to create an environment in the jails that ensures the safety of everyone--both incarcerated individuals and staff members," said Parish. "By their actions and demeanor, correction staff can defuse tensions and prevent hostilities from boiling over into violence or they can light the match. Currently, provocation and abuse of authority seem to be the dominant approach.

"Nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than in the solitary confinement units in the city jails."

Another component of solitary confinement is the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates, which is for people with mental illnesses. Late last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report titled "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons," detailing how the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons is arbitrary and unjustified; harms prisoners and prison staff; and decreases prison and community safety. The website devoted to the study features excerpts of prisoners' letters about life in extreme isolation, a library of DOC data and records, statistical analyses and a videofeaturing the voices of family members whose loved ones have been held in extreme isolation.

Parish said that the existence of these facilities can permanently shatter an inmate so badly that he'd no longer function in the outside world once it's over.

"The existence of these closed units sets the stage for hostilities," said Parish

"The very fact that a person is in a Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates--solitary confine- ment unit for people with mental illness--predisposes him or her to be viewed as a threat despite the fact that punitive segregation sentences are not reserved for acts of violence but may in fact be imposed for conduct such as possessing tobacco. "Moreover, because the purpose of the unit is to punish, creating a harsh environment gives correction officers an excuse to treat the people under their control as less than human," said Parish.