What Is Cruel & Unusual? Billy Blake and Long-Term Solitary Confinement

In Syracuse and Onondaga County he will always be known as cop-killer Billy Blake. In 1987, while under arrest and being escorted into court in Dewitt, he grabbed a gun from an Onondaga County Deputy Sheriff and started firing. He killed one of the deputies and injured another. Blake was sentenced to 77 years to life in prison for the murder.

In December, the Yale Law Journal gave him an honorable mention in their annual prison writing contest. On Saturday, the NY Daily News ran a storywith a brief interview with Blake about his essay and its topic–long-term solitary confinement. A brief Google search shows that the site Rap Genius has posted the essay online.

The first Syracuse media site to pick up on this was News Channel 9. Their piece online emphasized the essay and then ran to get a response from the always newsworthy Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick who didn’t disappoint:

It is truly unfortunate that a prestigious university such as Yale Law School would choose to ‘honor’ a sociopathic murderer. While the fact that this genetic mutation is ‘bored’ in prison apparently merits an award from the future barristers at Yale, the People of Onondaga expect that more sensitivity be shown to crime victims and their families. Perhaps the students at Yale can all chip in and send Blake a deck of cards so he can play Solitaire for the next 50 years.

Lost amongst this truly horrific crime, the personalities and the posturing by all parties involved–criminal, DA and news media–is the fact that long-term solitary confinement is a serious and disturbing issue in America.

There are scholarly papers written on the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement of prisoners. There have been hunger strikes and lawsuits in attempts to change the solitary confinement policies at Pelican Bay state prison in California.

Closer to home, a 2012 article in The Nation entitled “New York’s Black Sites,” reporters Jean Casella and James Ridgeway reported on the extensive use of solitary confinement in New York.

In this article, Casella and Ridgeway also hold out Billy Blake as the exemplar for the problems with long-term solitary confinement:

In the meantime, men like Billy Blake will continue to be used to justify solitary confinement . . . As a cop-killer and an escape risk, Blake is considered a permanent threat to prison safety. For this reason, he is one of the few New York prisoners in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s in solitary more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status. He has been in isolation in a series of prisons for close to twenty-five years. He is now 48; since his sentence is seventy-seven years to life, he has no prospect of getting out of prison, and next to none of ever leaving solitary . . . We do not know whether the man we met is too dangerous to be in the general population. We do know that the treatment he is receiving from the state can only be described as torture.

7 thoughts on “What Is Cruel & Unusual? Billy Blake and Long-Term Solitary Confinement

  1. For once I can’t support your position on this one, or if it’s not your position then the position of whomever decided to write the original piece. There are some crimes that are just overtly heinous and what this guy did was just that. My gripe with the death penalty is that too many times people get convicted based on hearsay and no “real” proof that they did it. In this monster’s case he should have been put to death a long time ago and forgotten. I think the same thing about the guy who last week raped the 10-year old girl & killed her mother.

    You know how I go with this; people have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Yeah, sometimes those actions are cruel and don’t fit the transgression; in this case, the only thing lacking is that he should only have a 4×4 cell and be made to stand for his crimes for the rest of his life. Phooey on him.


    1. Mitch: I understand your position and sympathize. I think that for most CNY’ers it is almost impossible to separate their emotions about the heinous nature of Blake’s crime and the terms of his punishment. But we must, as a nation, face up to our attitudes about crime and punishment.

      I do not support the death penalty under any circumstances. The extreme fallibility of the judicial system and the racism that has been documented in the application of the death penalty has resulted in the execution of innocent people. That is not moral or right–because the wrong can never be corrected.

      I agree that people must deal with the consequences of their actions. In Blake’s case, it should mean serving a life sentence with little to no chance of parole. But punishment needs to be meted out in accordance with our society’s moral code. Especially when the offender has done something as depraved as Blake. To do otherwise is to drag our society to the base level of the offender. The Constitution bans the imposition of cruel and unusual punishment. Long term solitary confinement has been understood to be cruel and tortuous back when our penitentiary system was being developed in the early 1800’s.

      The one thing I believe you have totally missed is your statement that “for once I can’t support your position on this one . . .” We have often disagreed–and I’ve usually learned something through our exchanges. Thanks for keeping me honest!


  2. I probably don’t understand the effects, but I have to say I would prefer longterm solitary confinement to being mixed in with the general prison population.


      1. (Trying this one more time…Wordpress.com doesn’t like me any more and keeps asking for a different login)

        I’m never sure that these solitary confinement studies actually allow for variations in prisoners’ experiences. I mean, honestly my first reaction to the notion of being locked into a cell by myself is “Yay!” especially when I think about the alternative – having to spend time with Big Bertha in Cell Block H.

        But, back to Billy Blake and his essay. There isn’t a single emotion he describes that isn’t part of the human experience writ large. One might argue that God has put the human race into solitary confinement as well, which might explain why we (collectively) behave the crazy way we do. The problem with Blake’s essay is that it’s boring and whiny and fails to question the (The) Man. I hope I use my solitary confinement to make better connections. -Ellen


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