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Another Voice: Article gave misleading impression of prison conditions

By Elbert B. Watt

I'm writing in response to a submission by Stephen Hart, from the Western New York chapter of HALT, Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement. He describes solitary confinement as “5,000 New Yorkers waking up every morning in a barren concrete box the size of an elevator. Meals and medical care delivered through a slot in the door. No educational or rehabilitative programming, no worship service or meaningful human contact.” His accusations leave the reader with an unrealistic view of the prison system and the role that solitary confinement plays within it.

I work for the New York State Department of Corrections, so I hope that my 24 years of experience lend some much needed credibility to this topic. In some cases, one-person solitary confinement is the only choice, but not the only alternative. Many of our prisons practice double cell (two-person) confinement and though it's not perfect, it's neither antiquated or draconian and is continually monitored by the state.

Hart references the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners.

Also called the “Nelson Mandela Rules” honoring the late president of South Africa who served 27 years of a life sentence, six in real solitary confinement. His crime? Conspiring against the apartheid regime. In his quest for peace, democracy and unity between blacks and whites, he became a political prisoner.

These 5,000 New Yorkers that Hart represents are not political prisoners and are never denied access to proper medical care or religious material. (Sorry, we do not take them out of their cells to attend religious services.) They're allowed books, family pictures, legal work and hygiene items. They conditionally receive additional items within a predetermined time frame. These rules apply statewide and are not at the discretion of staff.

Hart's most damaging accusation is that long-term solitary confinement is a form of torture and disproportionately inflicted on minority groups. Unfortunately, more than half of our prison population is represented by minority groups. Our job is dangerous enough without reckless comments like this. We deal with the worst that society produces and are overwhelmed with gang violence and drug-induced assaults on staff. Our rules of engagement continually change and the kinder, gentler Department of Corrections is becoming a system that enables a more emboldened prison population. The state closed numerous psychiatric facilities designed for the mentally ill. Many reopened as prisons, hotels and restaurants. Where did all those patients go? This was political sleight of hand; all we did was reshuffle the deck.

Let's focus on a problem that no one wants to talk about, and stop blaming the school system, the teacher, the police officer and the criminal justice system. The family, or the lack of it, is where the real malfunction occurs.

Elbert B. Watt of Delavan is a New York State corrections officer.

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