x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

State's drug sentences labelled inhuman

A human rights group claims New York state's prison system practises "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of substance abusers.

NEW YORK // New York state's prison system practises "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" because it sentences inmates to sometimes years in disciplinary segregation for drug use and possession, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report published yesterday. New York prison officials sentenced inmates to a collective 2,516 years in segregation between 2005 and 2007 for drug-related charges committed while in prison. Meanwhile, prisoners needing drug treatment faced big delays or no help at all because there were not enough programmes.

"Most inmates will eventually return to our communities and we must ensure strong and effective treatment programmes during incarceration in order to increase the likelihood of their success upon release," Jeff Aubry, a New York state assemblyman and chairman of the corrections committee, said. "Denying treatment to inmates who suffer from a drug dependency is illogical and counterproductive to the goal of rehabilitation."

This year the New York state senate, now controlled by Democrats, is expected to repeal so-called Rockefeller laws, which since the 1970s have imposed some of the country's toughest mandatory sentences for drug offences. "Reforming the Rockefeller drug laws to prevent drug users from being sentenced to long prison sentences is critically important," Megan McLemore, health researcher at the human rights group, said.

"But timely and effective programmes must be available to serve the inmates still in prison." The report, Barred from treatment - punishment of drug users in New York state prisons, said 85 per cent of inmates had substance abuse problems, according to a count by prison officials. New York state prisons have about 63,000 prisoners in 69 facilities - the fourth-largest system in the United States.

Almost 12,000 were incarcerated for drug-related offences - 40 per cent of whom were convicted for possession, rather than the sale, of drugs. The vast majority have never been convicted of a violent offence. The report said thousands of prisoners, many struggling with addiction, were often disciplined with sentences to the "box". They were removed from the general population for 23 hours a day and contact with the outside was severely restricted, including visitors, packages and telephone calls.

"In New York State prisons, drug users are locked in the 'box' for months, even years, barred from treatment," the report said. "New York's severe punishment of drug use in prison, while delaying or denying access to treatment and harm reduction services, violates prisoners' right to health and the right to be free from cruel and inhuman treatment under international law." The group interviewed more than 50 current and former prisoners, including Lawrence Y, who said: "I've been in the box since 2004 on one drug ticket after another. I'm going to max out my sentence in here. I'll go home with the same habit I came in with."

In 2008, New York state spent US$20 million (Dh73.4m) on alcohol and drug programmes, but they were still inadequate. Prisoners dependent on heroin and other opiates had no access at all to such addiction treatments as methadone. Agencies such as the World Health Organisation have found that prisoners are more likely to use injectable drugs, such as heroin, when they might be subjected to mandatory drug tests. Smoked cannabis is detectable for up to one month, but heroin leaves the body within two days.

Human Rights Watch said last month that African-Americans have been arrested on drug charges at rates up to 5.5 times higher than whites for nearly three decades, even though both races commit offences at comparable rates. About one in three of almost 25.5 million adults arrested on drugs charges between 1980 and 2007 was African-American. sdevi@thenational.ae