New York Supermax Report Reveals Brutality, Neglect, and Prolonged Solitary Confinement at Southport State Prison

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Imagine row after row of cell doors that rarely open and row after row of people trapped behind those doors, in small cells, day after day. Imagine having to hold most of your conversations by shouting through your cell door at voices whose faces you cannot see; imagine trying to sleep as a cacophony of other voices continue shouting around you.

This is the reality inside Southport Correctional Facility, New York’s first supermax prison. Located four hours west of New York City near the Pennsylvania border, Southport holds roughly 350 people in Special Housing Units (SHUs), or specially-designed solitary confinement units, on any given day. These 350 people spend at least 23 hours each day alone in their cells with little to no human interaction or programming to engage their minds.

On Wednesday, the Correctional Association of New York, the state’s oldest prison monitoring organization, released a report entitled Solitary at Southport. Drawing on the organization’s 2015 inspection of the prison, one-on-one interviews with nearly every person held in the SHU, follow-up investigations, and responses from over 190 written surveys and correspondence, Solitary at Southport reveals a prison that “embodies some of the very worst aspects of incarceration in New York.”

On any given day, New York State prisons hold roughly 2,900 people in SHUs, or 5.8 percent of its state prisoners. An additional 1,000 people are estimated to be held in keeplock, another form of isolation in which people are locked into their own cells (rather than specially-designated cells) for 23 to 24 hours each day, bringing the percentage to 7.65 percent. In comparison, the national average is 4.4 percent. Most people are transferred to Southport and the state’s other supermax prison, Upstate, for extended punitive stays in solitary after being charged with rule violations in other prisons. Some remain there for years.

At Southport, the Correctional Association spoke with hundreds of people who were suffering from extended isolation, including high rates of depression and anxiety as well as numerous instances of self-harm. Nearly 90 percent of the people at Southport are Black (62 percent) or Latino (27 percent). They reported pervasive violence and racism from the nearly all-white staff, including not only brutal beatings but also disciplinary tickets for behaviors as minor as disobeying a direct order or talking back to staff—tickets that extended their SHU sentence by months. Advocates also learned that nearly 17 percent of people in Southport were under the age of 25 and that 6 percent were age 21 or younger.

A Year in Isolation Stretches to Five

Rogelio was sent to Southport in 1999, initially for one year, after a fight at the Shawangunk Correctional Facility. There, he encountered problems with the porters—other incarcerated people assigned to clean the hallways and serve food. “They weaponized the food,” meaning that they contaminated his meals. he explained in an interview following a press conference in Manhattan marking the release of the report. Rogelio responded by throwing things at them from his cell. Each time, he was issued a disciplinary ticket; each ticket led to an additional nine months in Southport. He spent a total of five years in Southport. In 2004, he was transferred to Comstock and placed in general population.

Rogelio’s experience is not uncommon. The Correctional Association found that approximately 57 percent of people in Southport received at least one disciplinary ticket in 2015. That number jumped to 77 percent the following year. Nearly all (98 percent) of these tickets resulted in guilty findings and, in half of those cases, people were given an additional 60 and 75 days in isolation. Black people, like Rogelio, made up 64 percent of those who received a ticket and 67 percent of those who were sentenced to at least six months’ additional time in the SHU.

“It was a horrible, horrible experience,” said Rogelio, who returned home in November 2011 and is now a member of the Brooklyn-based advocacy organization VOCAL. “I still feel the effects of it today. I deal with it every single day.”

Read the full article by Victoria Law here.