Researching Abuse in New York Prisons

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The Prison Visiting Project (PVP) has initiated an intensive, six-month study of the nature, scope and causes of abuse in New York’s prisons. We are conducting this study in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal in Iraq. Shocking photographs of the brutality there, as well as ongoing evidence of incarcerated individuals being abused at the Guantánamo detention center, sparked outrage in the United States. It became impossible to deny that grave problems exist in institutions managed by American troops.

After 160 years of monitoring New York prisons, the Correctional Association is all too aware of the kinds of abuse that can occur inside closed institutions. While the CA cannot bring cameras into prisons, we can do the next best thing: observe what few can see and bring our findings and recommendations to the light and scrutiny of public view. Our role, in effect, becomes that of society’s camera.

Although we have little reason to believe that incarcerated individuals in New York routinely suffer from the kinds of humiliation reported in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, we know that abuse of incarcerated individuals, violating basic human rights, does take place here. From physical assaults to the deliberate denial of food, light and water; from the excessive confinement of incarcerated individuals in 23-hour isolation for violating prison rules to widespread retaliation for filing complaints; from the exploitation and mental deterioration of incarcerated individuals with mental illness in lockdown to the denial of needed medical care for those with serious illness, abuse exists in many forms.

Based on our unique legislative mandate to monitor New York prisons, the CA will use its access and expertise to get at the heart of this problem, conducting incarcerated individual interviews and discussions with prison staff . We will also seek Department of Correctional Services’ documents detailing the nature and extent of violence in the system and its response to allegations of abuse. Our work is informed by a national committee of advisers with experience in correctional issues, violence prevention and prison management.

Additionally, we are examining the mechanisms New York uses to measure and address problems of abuse, assessing the degree to which the state adheres to internationally recognized human rights standards. We are identifying the factors that contribute to abusive or safe environments in prisons, such as the training and supervision of officers, the demographics of incarcerated persons and staff , video surveillance, idleness and disciplinary practices such as solitary confinement and use of force. Finally, we will discuss the advantages of the CA’s watchdog role and identify methods of introducing our model of independent oversight in other states.

Our research will result in a detailed report of our findings and recommendations for establishing safer, more humane and more manageable prison environments. We will present our conclusions in testimony before the recently established, national Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons and engage in a concerted effort to have the report become an important part of the country’s discourse on prison abuse. We will also publicize this work in other forums as a way to advocate for constructive changes in New York prisons.

We encourage formerly incarcerated individuals and family members of incarcerated persons who have experience with this issue, positive or negative, in a New York prison, to contact Jack Beck at 212-254-5700 x 310 or jbeck[at]correctionalassociation.org.

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