Feb 12 – Advocacy groups and Democrats in the state Legislature are revisiting a long-stalled measure that would limit the use of solitary confinement of prisoners. Will this be the year New York will curb solitary confinement in New York’s prison system?
Advocacy groups and Democrats in the state Legislature are revisiting a long-stalled measure that would limit the use of solitary confinement of prisoners, saying the practice is inhumane and can lead to long-term health issues.
They are backing the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act that would put strict restrictions on when solitary could be employed.
“Thousands of people in New York are suffering in solitary confinement right now, and tens of thousands each year,” the groups wrote in a memo to legislative leaders last month.
The groups were in Albany again on Tuesday, imploring lawmakers to act during the legislative session that runs into early June.
Advocates have pointed to a United Nations report several years ago that determined any length of time in solitary beyond 15 days amounts to torture.
Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-Bronx, who sponsors a bill to limit the use of solitary confinement in the state, told advocates at the Tuesday rally he will not rest until the measure passes.
Sepulveda likened solitary confinement to torture and said the state has a moral obligation to end the practice.
“I don’t want to live in a state where we are violating rules of the United Nations when we are a member nation of the United Nations,” Sepulveda said.
The supporters of the change contended New York prisons can leave inmates in solitary confinement for months or even years, and the practice disproportionately impacts black and Latinx people.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has proposed changes, but the groups said his measures would still not effectively limit it.
The state Department of Corrections has indicated it would consider increasing the amount of time prisoners in solitary confinement are allowed out of their cell from one hour to five hours each day.
It would also limit the types of rule violations in prison that would be punishable by being sent to a so-called special housing unit.
The corrections officers union, the Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, has opposed the changes, saying solitary confinement is needed to control county jails and state prisons.
“While some of the treatment and rehabilitative provisions of the bill may be worth of consideration, the failure of this bill to adequately consider the safety and well-being of those working and living within the prison system cannot be ignored,” the union said in a memo last year.
But lawmakers pushed back on Tuesday, arguing the HALT Act would limit the power imbalance between correctional officers and inmates.
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“We do not want guards to be in danger, but what we don’t want is human beings to be locked up liked caged animals in little cells for weeks, months and years on end,” said Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, D-Manhattan.
The HALT Act would have New York join Colorado with a 15-day limit on solitary confinement.
The New York measure would put a 15-day limit on solitary and would create “more humane and effective alternatives,” advocates said.
For example, the bill would ban the use of special diets as punishment, require a mental health screening before solitary is assigned and mandate a heightened level of care for prisoners in segregated confinement or residential rehabilitation units.
It would also limit inmates from being in segregated confinement not only for no more than 15 days straight, but no more than 20 out of 60 days — “unless specific acts are committed while in such confinement,” the bill states.