For Thousands in New York’s Prisons, Christmas is Just Another Day in Solitary Confinement

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From The Village Voice:

Nicholas Zimmerman will spend Christmas locked in his cell at Clinton Correctional Facility, the men’s state prison 20 miles from the Canadian border. Instead of opening presents with his family, he’ll wake to a breakfast tray slid through a slot in his door. He’ll spend most, if not all, of the day inside his cell. Maybe he’ll be allowed out for one hour where he can exercise alone in a caged yard. If he’s really lucky, he’ll also be allowed to shower.

Phone calls aren’t allowed in solitary, so Zimmerman won’t be able to wish his family a merry Christmas, or hear what gifts they exchanged, or even say, “I love you.” Mail call might bring him a card from his mother.

Zimmerman, who entered the system in 2002 on weapons possession, bail jumping and bribery, has spent 12 Christmases this way.

According to the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, Zimmerman is one of approximately 4,500 people who are spending the holidays in solitary confinement. On Friday, dozens of people rallied outside Governor Andrew Cuomo’s midtown office calling on him and the state legislature to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the use of isolation to 15 consecutive days and create alternatives to solitary confinement for people separated for longer periods of time.

Outside the entrance to Cuomo’s Midtown office, they serenaded passers-by and staff with altered Christmas carols. “Support the bill to HALT confinement,” they sang to the tune of “Deck the Halls.” “It’s your New Year’s human rights assignment.”

Among the carolers were men who served sentences in solitary. Tyrell Muhammad spent seven years in Special Housing Unit, or SHU, a cellblock dedicated to 23-hour isolation. Muhammad recalled that each Christmas the men in the cells around him hoped that mail call would bring a card. On Christmas Day, men would shout through their cell doors, reminiscing about past holidays with their families. “Those conversations last but so long,” he told the Voice. Now working with the Correctional Association of New York, which monitors prison conditions, Muhammad said that in solitary, “people lose touch not only with their families, but also with their mental health.”

Ken Bright spent two years in the SHU. That first Christmas, instead of carols, he heard men screaming through their cell doors. Prolonged isolation, accompanied by sensory deprivation, the lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological issues, including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

Read the full article by Victoria Law here.