By Shreya Mandal, Expert Witness for New York State Courts
I was introduced to working with people in solitary confinement as the first mitigation specialist/ social worker at the Criminal Appeals Bureau of The Legal Aid Society of New York from 2005 to 2012. Now, I am an expert witness for the courts. After the passage of Rockefeller Drug Law Reform, I was allowed to create a pilot program rendering both post-conviction sentence mitigation and reentry planning for hundreds of men and women who spent decades in Upstate New York prisons for drug felony and misdemeanor convictions. Many of these people by default, ended up in isolated confinement for years at a time. We advocated for resentencing and early release on behalf of 20% of the entire community directly impacted by New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws. I got to know at least 700 directly impacted people, maybe more.
Instinctively, I felt it was critical to conduct face to face legal visits during the course of my mitigation—a practice that was rare for law offices located downstate. As a result, I visited over 70 correctional facilities throughout the state and had the opportunity to understand just how solitary confinement impacted those who were incarcerated for decades, and often without contact with the outside world. For many people, I was the first person visiting them for the first time in over 18 years.
During my first trip to Otisville Correctional Facility, I met a man from the Bronx already serving his 18th year in prison. His family was originally from Puerto Rico. Over the years, most of Mr. C’s family members in New York City either died or went back to Puerto Rico. He had lost contact with everyone. When I went to Otisville for my first mitigation interview, Mr. C. was visibly trembling and anxious by this first-time visit with me. As he shared the details of his experiences, it was clear that he had developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other related mental health issues. Mr. C. was just the first of hundreds of men that I met around New York State in the years to follow. As I continued to travel upstate, I met people who spent longer periods of time in solitary confinement, and who had severe mental illnesses— most of them were African American and Latino. Some were Asian or White. As I gained more clinical experience, I conducted more thorough trauma assessments in detail— well before the criminal justice community really understood what trauma informed practice meant. This routine detailing of early-life trauma and compounded trauma experienced in solitary confinement moved the judges in New York City, and it compelled them to grant early release for individuals who had suffered long enough.
Relatively little information on head injuries was known during this period. I began to suspect that people in solitary confinement had problems well beyond Complex PTSD. In the years to follow, I learned that people often experienced torture and mistreatment that was consistent with growing evidence based research on Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). According to Harvard Medical School, beatings to the head, a loss of consciousness, suffocation or strangulation, other types of injury to the head, and starvation are risk factors for TBI. The degree of torture and blows to the head often determine how severe a TBI is.
I interviewed countless men who described torture, rapes, and head beatings at the hands of correctional officers while in solitary confinement. The abuse they suffered often exacerbated other mental illnesses, such as Paranoid Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Many people were denied medical treatment, and when they received it, it was usually inadequate. While analyzing institutional disciplinary records and mental health records, people’s accounts of torture were rarely documented by mental health professionals who lacked proper credentials and training in modern-day mental health practices. It was clear that medical and mental health treatment in these correctional facilities were poorly resourced and often entirely obsolete.
Isolated confinement had not just impacted many of the people while they were in prison. It affected them for years after they were re-sentenced and released. I often picked people up from the bus at The Port Authority, taught them how to swipe a Metrocard, and helped them re-learn how to cross the street. After 20 years of prison and enduring long periods of solitary confinement, the people I worked with were often startled by the lights and transformation of Time Square. Adjusting back to society and renegotiating pre-established relationships was not an easy journey, a process that most people do not fully understand. As we worked together to find reentry housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, vocational training, and employment, I quickly learned that the adverse effects of long-term incarceration and solitary confinement were almost always permanent. In some instances, people who suffered through solitary confinement thrived better when they came home to an extensive family support system. But this was often not in place.
Despite the tremendous resilience among the directly impacted people I met, the reality was that New York did not have the adequate resources to deal with those who endured torture, solitary confinement, and traumatic brain injuries on a larger scale. In 2018, the mental health and therapeutic community has advanced in these areas. It has learned much more about mass incarceration and the tragic effects of solitary confinement. There are more clinical resources that are available to work with people impacted by TBI.
In addition to becoming increasingly trauma informed, the Center for Disease Control published the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study— one in which delineates adverse childhood factors that can potentially lead to PTSD in adulthood and contact with the criminal justice system. Earlier this year, the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved issued a long overdue study on 600,000 incidents of head trauma in New York City jails, close to 90,000 of which are TBIs. The implications of this study are enormous for those who are in solitary confinement— both in downstate jails and upstate correctional facilities.
In addition to the clinical strides we have made in in the mental health community nationwide, we broke ground since the uprising in Pelican Bay Prison. Since the U.N. Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez declared that solitary confinement is torture, former President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison. The passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-term (HALT) Solitary Act is hopefully the next important step towards complete abolition of solitary confinement.
Mollica, Richard. et. al., Harvard Trauma Questionnaire- Revised (Cambodian Version) Harvard Medical School, Department of Psychiatry (2004).