Lynn Finley Shares Son David's Solitary Confinement Nightmare

In movies, solitary confinement is what happens to prisoners who shank someone in the dining hall or attack a prison guard.

Lynn Finley said she thought only the "worst of the worst" wound up "in the box." But after her 29-year-old son David pleaded guilty to burglary in 2011, she was in for a shock.

Of the 15 months David Finley has been imprisoned, more than six months have been in solitary confinement, his mom said. Much as she worries about her son in prison, it's worse when he's in the box. Dread keeps her awake at night and frustration agitates her during the day.

"You have this feeling like there's nothing I can do," Lynn Finley said. "It's a feeling of hopelessness. You have to stand by and witness this horrible thing that your child is experiencing."

Those feelings are common among parents of the incarcerated, said Amy Fettig, senior staff council at the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.

"They don't have real means to communicate with their loved ones," Fettig said. "Correctional officials almost always don't feel they have any responsibilities to the parents or families of the inmates in their care. That's especially true of those who are in solitary confinement."

Lynn Finley said her son is hardly the kind of prison tough she expected to find trouble with authority.

"David always has been a very kind-hearted person," Finley said. "A friend of mine told me that in high school her son had a hard time with people picking on him. She said David was the only person who was kind to her son." Finley said her son is a dog lover who helped her rescue animals. He has an associate degree in business. "He has a tremendous sense of humor and he's just a very loving person," she said. "But drugs got him."

David Finley's powerful addiction to heroin led him to burglary and a six-year prison sentence, his mom said. On his first day at Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, N.Y., guards caught David Finley with Suboxone, a prescription drug designed to curb cravings for opiates. That earned him 30 days in solitary.

"He had never been to prison at all before and he was very scared," Lynn Finley said. "From his first day, he was in the box."

Shortly after being released from solitary, David Finley refused to scrape food off the bottom of a table in the dining hall at Franklin Correctional Facility in Malone, N.Y. He was written up for insubordination and locked in the hole for another 30 days.

"Insubordination is used for a lot of people," Finley said. "It can be for refusing to do anything."

These two trips to solitary were minor compared to what happened when David Finley wrote a letter to his girlfriend. Finley's long-term partner, also plagued by a drug problem, was serving her own prison sentence when Finley penned the note. That infraction -- writing to an incarcerated person -- earned Finley three more months in the box. Then he was caught with Suboxone a second time, earning him more time in solitary.

Finley is out of the hole now, but the ordeal isn't over.

"He's worried he's going to be sent back to the box," his mom said. "It's instilled a sense of hopelessness in him as well. You are so powerless."

While in solitary confinement, Finley was locked for 23 hours to 24 hours a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell with another inmate. He was allowed one optional hour each day in a four-foot outdoor cage. He could not make phone calls or use any of his possessions and he could not receive packages.

The solitary confinement punishments doled out to David Finley were allowed under prison guidelines — and that's the problem, his mother said. "There's a lot of discretion given to people who perhaps shouldn't have it," Finley said. Solitary "has become mainstream practice. It's too heavy-handed for most of the people in there."

Peter Cutler, spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections, disagreed that David Finley's punishments were overly harsh. "We have rules and regulations and policies that apply to everybody in order to maintain a level of safety and security for everyone," Cutler said.

Cutler said 4,318 of the 56,078 inmates housed in New York state prisons are now in solitary confinement. "That means 92 percent of those in our custody are adhering to the regulations," he said.

As her son's prison sentence drags on, Lynn Finley said she and David remain close. She remembers visiting him at the Upstate Correctional Facility, where the prisoners were "kept in these large cages and you can't hug them."

"When I left, I would slide my hand in the two-inch space beneath the cage and he'd kiss me goodbye," Finley wrote in an email. "I always cry when I leave. It's heartbreaking."

To hear more of Finley's story, visit the ACLU website.

CORRECTION: An early version of this story incorrectly stated that the burglary David Finley was convicted of took place in 2011. It took place in 2009.