Ensuring Humane Conditions of Confinement in New York State Prisons

Published on November 16th, 2011


The New York State Department of Corrections has historically operated some cells that segregate prisoners for periods of time for disciplinary and administrative purposes.  Since the 1970s, the State has developed “Special Housing Units” (SHUs) where inmates spend 23 hours a day in single cells.  Such inmates are denied congregate programming or religious worship, but offered limited privileges related to visitation, law library and education.  In recent years, the state has approved plans to create a more limited version of SHU cells in a maximum security facility and designated medium security facilities.  These units are specifically designed to keep contact between inmates and staff to a minimum.  Current plans call for long periods of confinement in cells that severely restrict access to personal hygiene, physical exercise, human contact and religious services.

Conference Position

The Catholic Conference supports efforts to ensure that disciplinary options within the correctional system are designed in a way that respects the dignity of the human person, guarantees access to religious counsel and worship and ensures no further harm will come to the disciplined individual.


The successful management of New York State’s prisons clearly depends in part on the ability of correction officers and administrators to discipline inmates for infractions of facility rules.  This helps to ensure that officers and other inmates will be safe from violence and able to exercise their rights.  We recognize the need for disciplinary and protective space for inmates.  In relation to SHUs, we question the conditions under which they operate, the extent of their use, and the extended length of time of their use.  Our chief concern is loss of human dignity where punishment overrides concerns for public safety, rehabilitation or restitution.

Inmates in Special Housing Units are locked in their cells 23 hours per day and do not participate in congregate programs or religious services.  They are allowed an hour of solitary recreation in a 6 foot by 8 foot area attached to the unit.  Each cell is eight feet, six inches by twelve feet, eleven inches, which is about 105 square feet.  Showers are permitted two times a week.  Programming and surveillance are provided by means of electronic and sound monitors.  The need for privacy and contact with inmates is of grave concern for Catholics who are seeking the Sacraments or religious direction and spiritual advisement.

The length of time inmates are spending isolated in SHUs is alarming.  It is clear that lengthy periods of isolated incarceration can induce psychosis in inmates with mental disorders, and serious psychotic symptoms in inmates without prior mental illness.  The current approach to Special Housing for inmates for disciplinary reasons is inconsistent with the dignity of all human persons regardless of their background or standing in life, as well as the need for rehabilitation.

You can download this document, Ensuring Humane Conditions of Confinement in NYS Prisons, in PDF form.

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