For Immediate Release
New York: Stop Sending Prison Drug Users to ‘the Box’
Years in Disciplinary Segregation Constitutes Cruel, Degrading Treatment and Fails to Provide Needed Care
WASHINGTON - New York State's practice of sentencing
inmates to months, even years, in disciplinary segregation for drug use
and possession and denying them effective drug dependence treatment
constitutes cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch
said in a report released today.
In the 53-page report, "Barred from Treatment: Punishment of Drug Users in New York State Prisons,"
Human Rights Watch found that New York prison officials sentenced
inmates to a collective total of 2,516 years in disciplinary
segregation from 2005 to 2007 for drug-related charges. At the same
time, inmates seeking drug treatment face major delays because
treatment programs are filled to capacity. When sentenced to
segregation, known as "the box," inmates are not allowed to get or
continue to receive treatment. Conditions in the box are harsh, with
prisoners locked down 23 hours a day and contact with the outside
through visitors, packages, and telephone calls severely restricted.
"New York inmates with substance use problems - 85 percent by prison
officials' own count - find themselves in a Catch 22," said Megan
McLemore, health and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Many can't get timely treatment, making them vulnerable to being
punished with segregation. And once there, they are barred as a matter
of policy from the treatment they need."
The report is based on more than 50 interviews with current and
recently released inmates, as well as prison treatment program staff
and correctional health, drug treatment, and harm reduction experts in
New York and other states.
One case profiled in the report is that of David A., who is
currently serving three years in isolation for prison drug violations.
Despite pleading for treatment, David was recently sentenced to an
additional two years in the box for a marijuana violation. In 2008, New
York State spent $20 million on alcohol and drug treatment in the
"These programs are being paid for by New York taxpayers, so should
be effective and rigorously evaluated," McLemore said. "The current
policies make no sense from either a security or public health
Sentencing inmates to years in isolation for drug infractions while
denying them access to treatment can amount to cruel, inhuman, and
degrading treatment in violation of the United States' international
human rights obligations.
"Discipline should be proportionate to the offense, and should never
prevent prisoners from getting the treatment they need," McLemore said.
"This only makes the problem worse, for both the inmates and the prison
system as a whole."
At a Capitol news conference with New York State legislators Jeff
Aubry, Felix Ortiz, and Ruth Hassell-Thompson, McLemore called on state
lawmakers to provide greater oversight of prison drug treatment,
stating that the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse
Services (OASAS) should be more involved in designing and evaluating
prison drug programs. The Department of Correctional Services has
conducted few evaluations of its own treatment programs.
Despite overwhelming evidence that medication-assisted therapy is
the most effective treatment for opiate addiction, the majority of New
York State prisoners dependent on heroin or other opiates have no
access to methadone or buprenorphine, Human Rights Watch said. The
report also documents New York's failure to implement effective HIV and
hepatitis C prevention programs.
"Prisons in California, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and many other
places are making condoms available and providing methadone or
buprenorphine without compromising security," said McLemore. "There is
no legitimate reason why New York State cannot do the same."
As New York State lawmakers push for reform to "Rockefeller"
mandatory-minimum drug laws, Human Rights Watch called for changes to
current substance abuse programs and disciplinary practices as well.
"Reforming the Rockefeller drug laws to prevent drug users from
being sentenced to long prison sentences is critically important," said
McLemore. "But timely and effective programs must be available to serve
the inmates still in prison."
Quotes from New York State lawmakers:
"Most inmates will eventually return to our communities and we must
ensure strong and effective treatment programs during incarceration in
order to increase the likelihood of their success upon release. Denying
treatment to inmates who suffer from a drug dependency is illogical and
counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation. Further, I feel
strongly that in-prison substance abuse programs should be subject to
oversight by the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services in
order to ensure effective treatment and promote a continuum of care
- NY State Assemblyman Jeff Aubry, chair of the Committee on Corrections
"We must ensure accountability within prisons; we need to make sure
that treatment services are going where they are needed. At the same
time, we need to ensure that we are funding education and prevention
programs to stop the cycle of drug crime."
- NY State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, chair of the Committee on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment
Quotes from prisoners interviewed in the report:
"I was in the ASAT program at Attica until a few weeks ago. They
discontinued the program because staff was transferred, and now the
waiting list is over 1,000. Even though I get priority, here is a
notice telling me that ‘it could be a long time' until I get into
treatment again. There's plenty of room for me in the box, but not in a
- James W., prisoner at Attica Correctional Facility
"I've had six or seven dirty urines. Never any violence, just drugs.
I got a year in [the box], then 18 months, then a year. [...] I've been
in the box 14 months on the last ticket and just got another 20 months
in here for possession."
- Nathan T., prisoner at Upstate Correctional Facility
"I've had 15, 16 drug tickets. No assaults or anything like that.
I've never been in a treatment program. Now I'm in the box 'til 2012.
I'm a drug addict. If you know I'm a drug addict, why are you putting
me in a box?"
- Peter G., prisoner at Southport Correctional Facility
"I've been in the box since 2004 on one drug ticket after another.
I'm going to max out my sentence in here. I'll go home with the same
habit I came in with."
- Lawrence Y., prisoner at Southport Correctional Facility
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.