“Prison Within Prison: Voices of Women Held in Isolated Confinement in New York”
“Prison Within Prison: Voices of Women Held In Isolated Confinement in New York” is a collection of oral and visual observations from twenty women about their experiences being held in isolated confinement in New York’s women’s prisons and Rikers Island. They are advocates and leaders on a range of issues in the movement to end the negative impact of mass incarceration and mass criminalization on women. All, except for one, are graduates of ReConnect, the Correctional Association of New York’s leadership development program for formerly incarcerated women.
“Prison Within Prison” was created to expand the conversation around the impact of isolated confinement by bringing attention to the different ways in which women experience such isolation., but more importantly, to support the efforts of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NYCAIC) to pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which puts restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and forces DOCCS to create humane disciplinary alternatives to solitary confinement. The bill bans anyone from being put in solitary for 15 consecutive days nor 20 days total in any 60 day period. The bill also bans specific populations most venerable to the effects of solitary confinement from solitary confinement including people 21 years or younger, 55 years or older, with disabilities (physical, mental, or medical), pregnant and LGBTQ.
In New York prisons and jails, isolated confinement sentences are imposed at high rates—approximately 4,000 are held in isolated confinement in New York prisons, and multitudes of others are held in isolated confinement in the jails. When a person is isolated in prison or jail they are held for 23 or 24 hours a day in a cell the size of a large elevator and restricted in their contact with others and the outside world. They cannot participate in programs or receive packages, and their access to showers, telephone calls, and visits are limited.
“Not everyone is in solitary because they are bad. Any little thing and you can be put on keeplock, like just for speaking back to the officers even if you really didn’t say nothing wrong.”
The power of this project is a direct result of 20 courageous women who generously shared their lived experiences with isolated confinement and their ideas for alternatives to this practice. Revisiting and recounting these experiences were not easy and we are grateful to them for their generosity. All are members of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, a statewide body coordinated by the Correctional Association that fights for the rights of women impacted by incarceration. Through coalition-based advocacy, the women interviewed for this project have advocated to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for drug possession; increase protections for incarcerated parents and parents in residential drug treatment with children in foster care; prohibit the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women; secure state health department oversight of HIV and Hepatitis C care in New York prisons; and continue to fight for alternative sentencing for domestic violence survivors who commit crimes directly related to their abuse. All desire to lend their voice and action to ending the overuse of isolated confinement in New York prisons and jails by educating the public about the impact that isolation has on women.
“I got 30 days on keeplock for taking a bar of soap. The officer said I stole it and wrote me up. At the hearing I explained that I saw it [the soap] and took it because I needed it, but I got a 30- day sentence, no time cuts. It was like, I was in for robbery, therefore, I must have stolen the soap. The hearings for solitary are a little too harsh. A warning would have been sufficient. If you didn’t stab or kill, why solitary? There are other ways to do things.”
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