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Queens Chronicle

Bill aims to reduce solitary confinement

Former inmate says years in the ‘box’ affect sleep, induce paranoia

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Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 5:17 am, Wed Dec 24, 2014.

About 12 years ago Five Omar Mualimmak — who says his unique numerical name is the subject of a whole other article — was arrested on drug trafficking, possession of an illegal weapon, money laundering and tax evasion charges and sent to Rikers Island. Those charges were changed and dropped and then a few reissued, Mualimmak, 38, said, keeping him in the system for 11 years.

Once he was put in prison, a fight landed the Bronx man in solitary confinement.

“I got stabbed at Rikers,” Mualimmak said. “If you are a victim, it’s not where they care about you. Five people were involved in the fight and everyone was going to the box.”

This was just his introduction to solitary.

More brawls kept him there — 23 hours of time spent in a room where the light never turns off, and one hour, “maybe,” spent outside — for about five years. A family member sent him a book that the prison deemed an organizing device, Mualimmak said, and he was given more time in solitary.

“Mathematically it’s impossible to bring everyone outside,” he said. “It’s torturous. The yard is like a dog pen. Have you seen a dog kennel? It’s like that.

“To go out you have to be at your gate fully dressed for the rec run.

“Then they strip search you in your cell. Take off all your clothes, then from there you are cuffed, shackled around your waist, cuffed around the ankle, brought to another room where there are dogs and you are stripped again, then cuffed, shackled, cuffed.”

Mualimmak was transferred several times to other prisons for fighting, once to a mental health prison and then to a detention center from where he would have been deported to Egypt, where he had attended elementary school.

Mualimmak is now a U.S. citizen, he said, but his birthplace of Ethiopia and his father’s involvement in the Black Panthers made that process difficult. His mother died in federal prison, where she was serving her term for criminal actions stemming from her radical political viewpoints. His father is in “whereabouts unknown.”

The inside 23 hours of solitary confinement are spent pacing, sleeping — about half the time he slept, something much different from his current insomniac life — writing, drawing and reading — Mualimmak was allowed 10 books a month, which “ran like water” — and just spent being bored.

He watched other prisoners hold open the cell flap where food would come in, just for human interaction. That infraction broke solitary confinement rules and was penalized with more time in the box.

“You just have to have some sort of emotional breakdown and emotional outbreaks are treated with more solitary,” he said.

Since being released last year he can’t sleep for days at time; he’s paranoid, angry and antisocial.

“What has affected me is not only just about sleeping right or having nightmares or having my sleeping patterns totally messed up, which all happens, but it’s about socializing. I just don’t any more,” Mualimmak said. “In the box all you have is your memories. Your brain contorts that, then you start to expound upon that and it leaves you with this distant thought of that memory.”

Now outside of prison, he has a difficult time living beyond those thoughts.

When he was first released in 2010 he ended up back in jail for violating parole. He has tried to hold down a job, but an injury thwarted that effort.

He lives in a transitional home in Lower Manhattan and devotes his time to advocating with the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow against solitary confinement.

“You become aggressive because you are so used to being oppressed. It’s like I’m crazy sometimes, but my psych says it’s normal,” he said.

“It helped knowing how common it is.

“Also my determination to change the system has helped me to stay calm. I have a goal and a cause.”

A new bill introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) would require the Department of Correction to post a monthly report on its website about punitive segregation.

It would require data on the number of people in punitive segregation, the length of time in this setting, the nature of the infractions, age, mental health, if they were prescribed medication or moved to a hospital, violence against self and others and inmate requests.

The bill, which was introduced on March 2, has 17 signatures including two from fellow Queens Councilmen Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Peter Koo (D-Flushing). Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the prison employees’ union, did not have a problem with such a bill, saying the information is recorded already.

Councilwoman and Chairwoman of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) did not respond to requests for an interview, but sent a comment.

“I am supportive of measures that will improve conditions in our City’s jails,” Crowley said. “Making the jail facilities safer for inmates and correction officers has been a major focus, and I look forward to discussing any proposed bills with those goals in sight.”

Dromm has issued a separate resolution seeking to end the practice of time owed. For example, an inmate, because of good behavior or other reasons, might only have served 100 of his or her 180-day sentence in solitary and then was released. A few years or even decades later the person is rearrested. Under current rules he or she must complete those unserved 80 days in solitary.

The resolution is only a request, because the Council does not have the authority to make the Department of Correction adhere.

Although the resolution has the support of 12 council members including Comrie, Seabrook passionately disagrees with it, calling such a proposal “ridiculous.”

He was offended that the councilman did not reach out to the union before proposing such a resolution and pledged to fight against it, saying the criminals in solitary are a threat to the general inmate population and the officers.

“I would ask the councilman if he has been punched in the face, had urine or feces put in his mouth, had a crime committed against him — then he could talk,” Seabrook said.

Seabrook noted that an individual could be sequestered if found with contraband like a matchbook, but says such infractions must be penalized.

Although prisons nationwide have decreased use of solitary confinement, the New York City Department of Correction expanded its capacity by 27 percent in 2011 and another 44 percent in 2012, according to the NYC Jails Action Coalition.

Although the DOC housed 1,000 more inmates in 1990 than it does today, its jails have more solitary cells now. This has the city topping the charts of municipalities with a high rate of solitary confinement.

Many advocates say the increase of solitary confinement doesn’t help the issue of people acting out and once they’re released, it only helps to put them in a mental state that will send them back to prison.

“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on cancer,” Glenn Martin, a spokesman for the Fortune Society, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals with support groups and education.

He said the city’s superfluous use of solitary confinement goes against Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro’s other efforts to help those in jail, especially younger inmates.

“Solitary confinement tends to be the way Rikers disciplines young people,” Martin said. “This further alienates them.”

Mualimmak said the only way to combat the issues that put individuals in solitary confinement is therapy. Instead of putting everyone in the “box,” he would like the staff to ask why these people who are a threat to the safety of others in the prison are acting this way.

“If this is a facility for correction why are there no programs for correction?” Mualimmak asked. “It’s not right to just put them in an isolated environment and think that they will work it out on their own.”

Dromm said when he visted Rikers the floors were filthy, and the beds were rusty and moldy.

“What does it mean for society that many homeless, mentally ill and many substance abusers are being put into solitary and then being released into the streets,” Dromm asked. “The effect of solitary on anyone is devastating, but even more so on these individuals. What does it mean when they come out? It makes it almost impossible to reintegrate.”

During Dromm’s visit he sat in on a therapy session with three inmates who had their hands chained to the pole in front of them.

“I don’t know how you give effective therapy while their arms are chained straight out in front of them,” Dromm said.

Additionally more than 30 organizations are calling on the Board of Correction to adopt further standards: to use solitary confinement as a last resort; increase the amount of time a person in isolated confinement is allowed to spend out of cell daily; limit the number of days in isolated confinement; exclude people younger than 25 and those with mental or physical disabilities or serious injuries from isolated confinement; require the creation of alternative safety restrictions to address violent conduct by these people in a more therapeutic manner; improve due process afforded to those at risk of being placed in isolated confinement; and increase transparency by requiring the DOC to report on its use of isolated confinement and alternative safety restrictions.

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