Yet another chilling story, this time from Florida’s Dade Correctional Institution, An Inmate Dies After Being Locked in a Scalding Shower for Two Hours. His Guards Won’t be Charged. The brutality and inhumane treatment is shocking, but what’s worse is the lack of accountability and proper oversight.
BY: Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, Scholar, and Renowned Expert on Prisoners’ Rights.
The tragic and shocking shocking death of Terrill Thomas reminds us — as if we need reminding — that prisons and jails are places that need careful oversight. Without oversight, as Kafka warned over a century ago horrors will inevitably occur. Yet in America, sadly, there is little meaningful oversight of our penal institutions. That has to change or there will be more and more needless and cruel deaths to mourn.
- Zach Cartwright, Man Dies of Thirst in Jail Run by Pro_Trump Sheriff After Being Denied Water for 6 Days, U.S. Uncut (Sept. 20, 2016).
- Ryan J. Reilly, An Inmate Died of Thirst in a Jail Run by a Loudly Pro-Trump Sheriff, The Huffington Post (Sept. 19, 2016).
- Michael B. Mushlin, What’s Going on in Our Prisons?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2016), at A19.
- Michael B. Mushlin, Written Testimony on Correctional Oversight of the NYS DOCCS, Hearing Before the State Assembly Standing Committee on Correction (Dec. 2, 2015).
- Michael B. Mushlin, “I Am Opposed to This Procedure”: How Kafka’s In the Penal Colony Illuminates the Current Debate About Solitary Confinement and Oversight of American Prisons,93 Or. L. Rev. 571 (2015).
New York has taken a substantial step in reforming its use of solitary confinement when disciplining prisoners throughout its correctional facilities. On Wednesday, the state reached an agreement in Federal Court to significantly curtail the use of solitary confinement, and to prohibit the use of such confinement when dealing with juvenile inmates.
According to the settlement, the state’s correction facilities will also use a more comprehensive approach when seeking to utilize solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool for inmates caught violating prison regulations. Specifically, correction officials will now adhere to “sentencing guidelines” that will dictate the length of time that can be imposed on certain infractions, and the maximum period that an inmate can be placed in solitary confinement. Likewise, the use of solitary confinement will also be limited to a period of 30 days when dealing with inmates who are pregnant, and those inmates who are disabled.
Notably, New York’s decision to limit the use of solitary confinement has come complimentary to a host of other states that have also begun to enact similar reform, including Colorado, Mississippi, and Washington. This recent movement amongst the states to deal with solitary confinement has come greatly appreciated by many humanitarian groups that have steadfastly contested the use of such confinement, noting the extremely negative psychological impact that it has on prisoners. Some prison officials have also begun advocating against the use of solitary confinement due to the elevated cost and risks associated with its use. Studies have suggested that segregated housing can be two to three more times costly to operate than general housing for inmates, and fail to address the fact that
[i]nmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge.
New York’s reform has also come at a time when the United States leads all other democratic nations in the number of inmates being held in solitary confinement. According to a New York Times report, there are at least 25,000 prisoners in solitary confinement within the United States, where some inmates are left to spend weeks, months, or even decades. Other studies have presented startling statistics relating to segregated housing within U.S. prisons, noting that up to 80,000 prisoners have been annually held in prison segregation units between federal and state facilities.
- Benjamin Weiser, New York State in Deal to Limit Solitary Confinement, N.Y. Times (February, 19, 2014).
- Erica Goode, Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity, N.Y. Times (March 10, 2012).
- The Commission on Safety & Abuse in America’s Prison, Confronting Confinement, Vera Institute of Justice (June 2006).
- State Reforms to Limit the Use of Solitary Confinement, ACLU (last visited Feb. 20, 2014).
The murder convictions of two men, Sharrif Wilson and Antonio Yarbough, were vacated by N.Y.S. Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman last week. The two men were 15 and 18 at the time of the murders and each had served 21 years in prison. District Attorney Ken Thompson consented to the vacatur and promptly dismissed the cases against them.
The two teenagers had been out together when Antonio Yarbrough returned home to find the grisly murder scene: his mother, young sister, and another young girl had been brutally murdered. The men consistently maintained their innocence and no physical evidence connected them to the crime. Last year, testing of material under Yarbrough’s mother’s fingernails revealed DNA that matched a subsequent rape and murder that occurred while the two were in prison. The killer remains unidentified.
- Antonio Yarbrough, Sharrif Wilson Exonerated For Triple Murder After Decades in Prison, Huffington Post (Feb. 9, 2014).
- Wrongfully Imprisoned Men Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson join “Piers Morgan Live”, Piers Morgan Live (Feb. 7, 2014).
- Haley Draznin, DNA Evidence Frees 2 Brooklyn Men Convicted in 1992 Triple Murder, CNN Justice (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Gabrielle Fonrouge, DNA Clears Men After 21 Years in Prison for Family’s Murder, New York Post (Feb. 6, 2014).
- Denis Hamill, Hamill: Tony Yarbough’s Brooklyn Murder Conviction Should be Reversed, Daily News (Jan. 19, 2014).