United as One Coalition Celebrates Progress, Joins Statewide Campaign

From the May 2014 PNL #834

by Amelia Lefevre

Jail Oversight in Onondaga County

The United as One Coalition, made up of over ten community and advocacy groups in Syracuse, was formed in 2010 following the death of Raul Pinet in the so-called Justice Center, the Onondaga County jail. According to Bruce Peak’s article, Justice Center Still Under Scrutiny for Custodial Deaths, in PNL #821 (February 2013), “Sheriff’s deputies caused the death by kneeling on his neck and back over his lung cavity and improperly fitting him with a ‘spit mask.’ … The jail guards left Pinet alone for seven minutes before going back in to assess his condition. They didn’t go in sooner because they believed he was ‘faking.’” Raul’s death followed another death at the Justice Center in 2009, that of Chuniece Patterson. Chuniece was suffering complications from an ectopic pregnancy. Officials denied her appropriate medical care, also dismissing Chuniece’s complaints as “faking.”

Since its founding, the coalition has worked for accountability at the county jail. Nearly four years since we came together, we are seeing the fruits of our efforts in the form of a bill going to vote in the county legislature on May 6 that will create an oversight structure for the jail and its personnel. The oversight body will include county-appointed members as well as community members. The new oversight committee will function similarly to the city’s Citizen Review Board, although its recommendations will focus on changing policy, practice, and training rather than discipline for particular jail staff.

After four years of marching, rallying, and organizing, there has been little satisfaction and no real justice for Pinet and Patterson (and others who have died or been brutalized in years past). However, the creation of this new oversight body will honor the memory of Raul and Chuniece, and bring something positive forward from their needless and tragic deaths. It will increase the transparency and accountability for what happens at the Jail. It will provide the Legislature and the public with concrete information and recommendations to apply pressure for real change.

Over 100 people marched with United
as One from Kirk Park to the Justice
Center on September 4, 2010 to
demand accountability. United as One
was just forming following Raul Pinet’s
death at the jail. Photo: Kim McCoy

Please join the Peace Council and the rest of the United as One Coalition to voice your support for this important bill at the May 6 session of the County Legislature:

May 6 at 1 pm
Onondaga County Legislature
401 Montgomery St., Suite 407

Join United as One to show your support for the jail oversight bill on the day it is scheduled to go to a vote. UaO will provide signs. Please contact Amelia if you are planning to go as dates may change. 472-5478.


United as One Joins Effort to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement in NYS

Solitary Confinement in NYS

The NYS prison system has about 5,000 solitary confinement units. Inmates in solitary confinement spend 23 hours a day in a small cell alone or in close quarters with one other person. Inmates receive no training, work, or rehabilitation services and report insufficient access to medical and psychological care while in solitary confinement. No transitional services are provided on solitary units, even if the inmate will be released directly from isolation. A 2004 study showed that inmates who spent at least three continuous months in isolation were more likely to recidivate, and the correlation was even stronger among those who were released without going back to general population first (Lovell and Johnson; see www.peacecouncil.net/pnl for link).
A 2012 snapshot of the statewide solitary confinement population found 402 inmates under 20 years old, 83 of them 18 or younger. 86% of the prisoners in NYS super-maxes (prisons wholly devoted to solitary confinement) are Black or Latino. Many have been diagnosed with mental illness before or after their arrival in isolation. LGBTQ prisoners are particularly vulnerable to discriminatory isolation and abuse within isolation.

Solitary and the Drug War

In 1890, the US Supreme Court concluded that “solitary confinement left prisoners in a semi-fatuous condition.” The practice was abandoned but was reintroduced into the US prison system in the last half-century. There is a clear connection between the manufactured Drug War, which has been disproportionately imprisoning men of color for nonviolent drug offenses since the 1970s, and the resurgence of solitary confinement as an acceptable form of punishment. The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that the 346% increase in the prison population between 1973 and 1993 (correlated with vastly increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenders) stressed the prison system with overcrowding that led to unprecedented management and control problems. Prisons responded to this stress by putting inmates in isolation. Like the Drug War itself, the system of solitary confinement within NYS prisons punishes nonviolent offenses extremely harshly and unjustly targets the Black and Latino population.

New Developments – Ending Torture in NYS

On January 31, NYS Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubrey and Senator Bill Perkins introduced the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would create an alternative to solitary confinement called the residential rehabilitation unit (RRU), which would provide additional programs, therapy and support to address underlying causes of behaviors that land inmates in solitary confinement. This is a contrast to punitive isolation which often creates or exacerbates psychological and social problems.

In addition to the hallmark creating of the RRU, the HALT bill would restrict the criteria leading to isolation or alternatives (currently even minor infractions can lead to solitary); end long term isolated confinement by imposing a limit of 15 days of isolation or 20 days within any 60 day period; prevent even one day of isolation for vulnerable populations including youth, the elderly, pregnant women, LGBT prisoners, and psychologically or physically impaired individuals; and mandate more comprehensive training for corrections staff working on isolation units and adjudicating disciplinary hearings.
Representatives from United as One will travel to Albany on May 5 to ask legislators to support this bill when it comes up for a vote in coming months. We will also attend a Rally to End Mass Incarceration while we’re there. Contact Amelia for information about United as One, the HALT bill, or to inquire if there is space in our van on May 5.

Amelia represents the Peace Council with the United as One Coalition.