New York's state prison system too often uses "extreme isolation" -- confinement in a "Special Housing Unit" -- to punish men and women for offenses and rules violations, according to a report released Tuesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
But state officials defend their policy of using the disciplinary measure, which could include solitary confinement, as a tool to curb violent and unruly behavior and to keep the state's 60 prisons safe and under control.
NYCLU officials released the report, called "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons," at a Manhattan news conference during which they showed a short film featuring people who have served time in the units. They recalled extreme distress while isolated in the units.
"New York must end its inhumane and harmful use of extreme isolation," said NYCLU's executive director, Donna Lieberman.
"This destructive practice not only endangers the individuals subjected to its cruelty, but the corrections staff guarding them.
"It wastes taxpayer money, makes our prisons and communities less safe, and degrades our state's commitment to respecting basic human decency."
The 72-page report is the culmination of interviews with as many as 100 prisoners and examination of documents over the course of a year beginning September 2011, NYCLU officials said.
The group said people are transferred to the Special Housing Units for a variety of reasons, but most often for nonviolent behavior such as selling chewing tobacco, testing positive for marijuana and cutting glass, said NYCLU legal fellow Scarlet Kim, who co-authored the report.
It said that the state sent 13,500 inmates to 5,000 Special Housing Units in 39 facilities, nearly 25 percent of the population of 56,000 prisoners.
The report concludes that state officials send prisoners to the Special Housing Units arbitrarily, and "as a disciplinary tool of first resort," Kim said.
She also said that the practice causes emotional and psychological harm on even stable inmates who become more difficult for corrections officials to handle and who will endanger public safety after release.
But Brian Fischer, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said the report was an inaccurate assessment.
"As society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we remove from general population inmates who violate the department's code of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities," he said.
"The possession of drugs, cellphones and weapons pose a serious threat within this and any other prison system."