10/03/2012 04:58 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2012

'Boxed In': NYCLU Releases Report On Extreme Isolation In New York Prisons

For 23 hours a day over the course of four months, a 21-year-old inmate at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, N.Y., shared an isolation cell the size of a parking space with another inmate.

The infractions that landed him there? Smoking in the bathroom, visiting another prisoner's cell, drawing his initials on his arm with a pen and not showing up for work duty.

But according to a New York Civil Liberties Union's report titled "Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons", it's commonplace for minor violations to result in inmates being sentenced to months, or even years in an extreme isolation cell.

"Once you're in the general prison population, there are many, many rules that prisoners have to abide by," Scarlet Kim, a legal fellow with the NYCLU, told The Huffington Post. "If you break any one of those rules, you can potentially be sent to extreme isolation and we found that the vast majority of sentences were for breaking the rules of non-violent as opposed to violent behavior."

"Boxed In" is the result of a yearlong research project that involved extensive document review and interviews with 100 prisoners who have spent time in isolation. The findings, the authors say, shed light on a growing problem in New York correctional facilities: Prisoners are often sentenced to isolation in an arbitrary way that leads to inhumane treatment and a weakened chance at integrating back into society productively upon their release.

The report found that between 2007 and 2011, 16 percent of the 68,100 isolation sentences for breaking prison rules were not the result of violent offenses. According to Kim, among the laundry list of infractions that might lead to time in extreme isolation, or "the box" as it's known, range from a positive drug test to an inmate's failure to return a cafeteria tray.

"There was a guy who had a list of people that he was selling chewing tobacco to in his cell," Kim told HuffPost. "I think he was sentenced to the box for three or four months. There was a guy who had also done a homemade tattoo on himself and I think he got 45 days."

One of the most surprising findings, according to Kim, is how many inmates are living in small cells for 23 hours a day with other prisoners. Roughly half of the 4,500 inmates who live in extreme isolation every day do so in a shared cell, some of which measure 105 square feet. The cells include a shower and a toilet but have no barriers between the people living there.

"It's clear from talking to the men that live two to a cell that there's no less isolation," said Kim, who noted that inmates report anxiety, depression and uncontrollable rage. "Some of those effects were actually exacerbated."

One inmate, identified as Marcus, recalled his experiences in a letter featured on the report's website:

"At times the C.O.'s would pick up our mail and rip it up in front of our door," Marcus wrote. He goes on to say that he was only allowed to shower once every three days and mentions he hardly had time to eat -- factors that led him to feel "like a zoo animal."

"We get hundreds, if not thousand of letters from prisoners," Taylor Pendergrass, senior staff attorney with NYCLU, told HuffPost. "Every year we get letters from people asking for help inside of the box, complaining about those conditions and giving us insight into the fact that there's a systematic problem."

Another inmate, referred to as Adrian in the report, keeps a picture of an executive's corner office with motivational notes scribbled on it as a reminder of his wanting to work: Self Doubt Is An Easy Death; A Goal A Day.

According to the report, when Adrian is released in September 2015, he will be have spent 1,600 consecutive days in isolation without having access to education services or vocational training -- another problem the NYCLU wants addressed. An estimated 2,000 inmates are released each year from isolation directly to the streets.

What's more, according to Pendergrass, is that the state's Department of Corrections is not properly tracking these sentences to determine whether or not they're effective in reducing prison violence or altering prisoner behavior in any positive way.

"DOCs isn’t collecting any information on whether this punishment is effective. When they put someone in the box for 4 months for selling chewing tobacco, is that person better behaved in the future?"

The available evidence suggests the answer to that question is "no," Pendergrass said.

Commissioner Brian Fischehas, with the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, released a statement in response to the "Boxed In" report. The statement was published on the Journal News website:

In reality, those in segregation on a daily basis see and interact with numerous facility staff who provide services outlined in Correction Law and departmental directives, including: medical, mental health religious counseling, education and personal hygiene.

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. The possession of drugs, cell phones and weapons pose a serious threat within this and any other prison system.

It is our duty to protect those in our custody, as well as our employees. If we fail to protect everyone in our facilities, we fail to maintain the task that has been placed in our trust. The use of disciplinary segregation is important to the overall well-being of any of our prisons. But I also recognize the need to constantly review our policies to determine if what we’re doing is effective and beneficial to everyone.

Visit the Journal News for the full statement.