The State of New York stands poised to overhaul the use of solitary confinement in its prisons and jails — a practice widely recognized as inhumane, arbitrary and counterproductive.
Last week, state legislators passed the HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term) Solitary Confinement Act, aimed at restricting the conditions under which inmates are held in isolation, including limiting confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. The bill passed both the Senate and the Assembly with a supermajority of support and now awaits action by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He should move promptly to sign the reforms into law. The new restrictions would take effect a year after the bill becomes law.
Despite piles of research detailing the brutal physical and psychological toll exacted by solitary confinement, it is a common form of discipline. New York correctional employees have wide discretion to throw people into “the box,” as Special Housing Units are known, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in a tiny space cut off from most human contact. Signs that someone belongs to a gang can land them in the box. So can “eyeballing” a guard.
The isolation, confinement and sensory deprivation of solitary eats away at inmates’ bodies and minds — trauma many undoubtedly bring home to their families and communities. They suffer from rage, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They become prone to self-harm, including suicide. Unsurprisingly, under these conditions, inmates often pile up additional infractions, or “tickets,” that extend their punishment. Some inmates languish in solitary for years or even decades. The damage they suffer can last far longer. The United Nations considers the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days to be a form of torture. Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has noted that the practice “literally drives men mad.”
Solitary confinement hits minority groups particularly hard. New data from the New York Civil Liberties Union shows that Black inmates make up 48 percent of the state’s incarcerated population, but 58 percent of those in Special Housing Units. Together, Black and Latino inmates make up 82 percent of those in solitary.
The problem stretches well beyond New York. At age 15, Ian Manuel landed in solitary in a Florida prison, where he languished for nearly two decades. “For 18 years I didn’t have a window to escape or soften the intensity of my confinement,” he writes in a Times Op-Ed of the soul-crushing experience. “I wasn’t permitted to talk to my fellow prisoners or even to myself. I didn’t have healthy, nutritious food; I was given just enough to not die.”
The horror of solitary is being addressed slowly, in bits and pieces. In 2016, President Barack Obama took action on the federal level. Among other reforms, he banned the confinement of juveniles in solitary in federal prisons. Various states have worked to improve their systems as well, some more aggressively than others.
New York has already taken some steps to address its problem. In 2015, as part of a legal settlement, the state agreed to limit who can be held in solitary and for how long. But gaping loopholes remain, allowing the system to be abused, and a more comprehensive overhaul is needed.
The HALT Act would bring New York’s system more into line with international humanitarian standards. Inmates could spend no more than 15 consecutive days in any type of segregated confinement, or 20 total days over the course of 60 days. Currently, inmates can be moved out of Special Housing Units but still remain in isolation in other types of units or in their own cells — a practice known as “keeplock.”
The act also would establish alternative rehabilitative measures, including special “residential rehabilitation units”; prohibit confining vulnerable populations to solitary; improve conditions in solitary; beef up reporting rules and enhance due process protections.
These reforms have been a long time coming. The HALT Solitary Campaign took root in 2012. Since then, its reforms have gradually gained steam and political support. Advocates say an earlier version of the bill looked as though it might pass in 2019, but Mr. Cuomo expressed concerns about the costs of implementation. Last November, the Partnership for the Public Good released a report showing that state and local governments would in fact realize an estimated $132 million in annual savings from reduced facilities costs, reduced medical costs and lower lawsuit expenses. Reformers are optimistic that the bill’s time has finally come.
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