Imagine spending a day in a dimly lit, 9-by-7-foot cell furnished only with a cot, a sink and an exposed metal toilet.
The walls and the floor are made of concrete, and only a tiny bit of natural light filters in through the heavy metal door that separates you from the hallway outside.
There is nothing to do all day between meals except read and sleep. Guards deliver your food through a slit in the door, and you only spend an hour outside your cell in a tiny closed-off section of the recreation yard. For the other 23 hours, you are completely isolated.
Sheriff Joseph Gerace displays the inside of a special housing unit.
P-J photo by Patrick Fanelli
For thousands of prisoners in New York, and for tens of thousands more in prisons across the United States, this is what their lives amount to for weeks, months, even years at a time.
Like Ralph Phillips - who is serving a life sentence after leading police on a five-month manhunt throughout Western New York in 2006 and is confined to such a cell - these inmates have either been deemed to be a security risk or have been accused of breaking the rules. To punish them and to maintain order at the prison, they are confined to 23-hour lockdown - today's version of solitary confinement - in what are called Special Housing Units, or SHUs for short.
''The law gives us the the authority to make a judgement about whether an inmate poses a security risk in general population,'' said Eric Kriss, a spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services. ''Beyond anything else, you have to keep these places safe. That's job No. 1.''
Special Housing Units remain controversial among prisoner rights advocates, who consider a prolonged stay in solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment and who are critical of the process that leads and keeps them there.
In New York, the average length of time prisoners serve in the SHU is 36 months, according to the Correctional Association of New York. That's three years confined to a tiny cell with virtually nothing to do and almost no human interaction - a recipe for ''severe psychological debilitation,'' according to the prison watchdog group.
Even before he arrived at Clinton Correctional Facility in northeastern New York on Dec. 21, 2006, there was a good chance Phillips would be deemed a security risk and confined to 23-hour lockdown.
Phillips escaped from an Erie County jail in April of that year and led police on a five-month manhunt, narrowly avoiding capture on numerous occasions. He also allegedly shot one state trooper near Elmira that June and two others Aug. 31, one of whom died a few days later from his injuries - though Phillips maintains his innocence and is appealing his guilty pleas.
Because of his history, Phillips was placed in Administrative Segregation immediately upon his arrival, according to Kriss - and inmates in Administrative Segregation are automatically sent to the SHU.
In addition, Phillips was reportedly found guilty of nine rules violations during his stay so far at Clinton, which would have sent him to the SHU for more than a year if he wasn't already there due to his Administration Segregation designation.
For more than 18 months, Phillips has been confined to his cell for 23 hours a day and only allowed books, some photographs, a limited amount of toiletries and writing supplies - and visitation is extremely limited, more so than other prisoners in the SHU, Phillips has said in correspondence with The Post-Journal.
Phillips is challenging his placement in solitary confinement. In May, he sent letters to several newspapers in New York in hopes of making his situation known to the public at large.
''It does not require a genius to determine that the Department of Corrections intends to punish me for the troopers,'' Phillips said.
While prisoners who break the rules are given a set amount of time to serve in the SHU, there is no such set length of time for prisoners like Phillips who are placed in Administrative Segregation. Prison officials review their status every 60 days, and if they are still determined to be a safety and security risk, they will remain in 23-hour lockdown.
'HORRIFIC AND ARCHAIC'
Naima Black - coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee's STOPMAX Campaign, which seeks to end solitary confinement in U.S. prisons - is critical of the Administration Segregation review process since it is entirely controlled by prison officials who might have grudges against particular inmates.
''There is no criteria ... except for the periodic reviews, which are a scam and a sham,'' said Ms. Black, who described many Special Housing Units in the U.S. as ''horrific and archaic.'' ''They went to prison as punishment, not for punishment. But when it's one of their own who gets hurt or killed, (the inmate) is at their mercy.''
Ms. Black talks of an inmate in a Pennsylvania prison who has been confined to the SHU for 12 years after fighting with a guard. According to Ms. Black, no matter how well he behaves, he can't get back into general population since he is continuously described by prison officials as ''cooperative, but begrudgingly.''
According to Jenni Gainsbro, director of the Washington D.C. office of Penal Reform International, it is not uncommon for prisoners to spend years in solitary confinement since ''authorities can always find reasons to keep them in for longer.''
Ms. Gainsbro believes there needs to be more oversight and more access for prison watchdog groups so they can better assess conditions in 23-hour lockdown units and the fairness of the disciplinary process.
''We need far more oversight for prisons in general,'' Ms. Gainsbro said. ''New York is a little bit better in that sense. ... But nationally, that certainly is a problem.''
For the most part, the courts haven't gotten involved, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Court rulings require prisons to have a protocol in place for confining inmates to 23-hour lockdown and returning them to general population. But aside from that, the management of 23-hour lockdown units is left entirely up to Congress and both state and county legislatures.
'AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY'
At the Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville, a nine-cell Special Housing Unit that is virtually identical to others across the state remains empty. Construction of the unit was part of the recent renovation and construction project at the jail, though it will not be in operation until a staffing dispute with the state Commission of Corrections is resolved.
Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace said he fought hard for construction of the SHU to be part of the project since the jail houses a high number of violent offenders, some directly from state and federal prisons that are filled to capacity- and he believes 23-hour lockdown is ''an absolutely necessity'' for prisons across the country.
It wasn't too long ago that one of his own correction officers was brutally beaten by an inmate. The correction officer was new and he let his guard down, according to Gerace, leaving himself vulnerable to an inmate armed with a slapjack - a blunt weapon concealed in any sort of a sack, like a sock. To make matters worse, the guard was alone, having to fight for his life until help arrived.
''We're not dealing with kindergarten kids here. These are bad, mean, dangerous people we're housing in this facility,'' Gerace said. ''They are ruthless and cold-blooded - not all of them ... but there has to be a way to manage that population.''
Take that away, Gerace says, and guards will have far less control since they can no longer subdue inmates with the threat of a lengthy stay in the SHU - an unattractive proposition for most.
''You would have an uncontrolled jail population - more inmate-against-inmate assault, more inmate-against-inmate murder. You'd have more correction officers injured or killed - more escapes and escape attempts,'' Gerace said.
And asked if he believes solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment for inmates, he says, ''Absolutely not.'' What was cruel and unusual, Gerace says, was what landed the inmate in prison to begin with - in Phillips' case, the murder of a 32-year-old state trooper and the attempted murder of two others.
CALLS FOR REFORM
Though the Correctional Association of New York - the state's leading prison watchdog group - does not push for the outright elimination of 23-hour lockdown, the group commissioned a report in 2003 entitled ''Lockdown New York,'' which painted a bleak picture of Special Housing Units in New York and recommended many changes to the state's disciplinary procedures.
According to the report, mental illness has been one of the biggest problems with 23-hour lockdown units. Mentally ill inmates tend to be far more likely to end up in the SHU, where their conditions could easily worsen and where their behavior can easily result in additional infractions and sentences that can last for decades.
In addition, healthy inmates are susceptible to developing mental illnesses from the ''enforced idleness and reduced environmental stimulation'' that define 23-hour lockdown, according to the report.
State legislators and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer reached an agreement earlier this year on a measure that prohibits inmates who are severely mentally ill from being housed in 23-hour lockdown, whether they developed the mental illness before or after their confinement.
The measure also requires the state to build facilities to better handle severely mentally ill inmates; to regularly screen inmates in lockdown for mental illnesses; to allow mentally ill inmates additional time outside their cells for therapy; and to train correction officers in mental health issues - all of which were recommendations made by the Correctional Association of New York in its 2003 report.
''I think the changes were enormous,'' said Trix Niernberger, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York, one of the advocacy groups that lobbied for the measure. ''Will it be effective? ... We'll just have to wait and see.''
But other reforms the Correctional Association of New York recommended - such as greater oversight over 23-hour lockdown in general, as well as programs that would encourage better behavior among unruly inmates as an alternative to simply keeping them in the SHU for longer periods of time - have yet to be adopted.