Solitary Confinement Reform in New York: An Update
June 21, 2019
Harvey Rosenthal NYAPRS
“Six by ten feet. That’s the average size of the cell in which thousands of New Yorkers suffer for weeks, months, and even decades in solitary confinement.
They are locked down for 22 to 24 hours a day, without meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy, in cells the size of an elevator.
With little stimulation, virtually no meaningful human contact and extreme idleness, they experience intense suffering, severe psychological and lasting neurological damage. They are forced to endure perceptual distortions, hallucinations, severe anxiety, appetite and weight loss, self-mutilation and suicidal thoughts.
Further, solitary increases the risk of suicide and self-harm. One third of all suicides in our state prisons take place in solitary and a recent study found that people who were held in solitary confinement in NYC Jails were nearly 7 times more likely to harm themselves.”
It’s clear now that solitary confinement is widely regarded as torture.
That’s why NYAPRS joined the 2008 ‘Boot the SHU’ campaign that ultimately reduced the numbers of New Yorkers with mental illnesses into solitary confinement cells in NYS prisons. But that work was no where near enough….and almost 900 people with significant mental illnesses suffer in the Box at this very moment today.
As a result, we became members of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), an extraordinary group of survivors, family members, faith based groups and legal rights and mental health advocates and why we have worked so tirelessly together for passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act ((http://nycaic.org/legislation/).
In January, Governor Cuomo released a Criminal Justice reform policy that included several important improvements (https://www.ny.gov/programs/restoring-fairness-new-yorks-criminal-justice-system) but left out most of the landmark provisions of the HALT bill.
Over the past 6 months, the Governor and Legislature were not able to reach agreement on how to include and implement the HALT provisions, either as a part of the budget or, since the HALT bill died last night despite voting majorities in both houses, via legislation,
Instead, the Governor and legislative leaders reached a “joint agreement to overhaul solitary confinement policies” last night that will be done administratively and, frankly, without the level of accountability and oversight that appropriately comes with a law.
At this time, we only have a few details but here are some mixed findings.
Duration: HALT requires that no one would be placed in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, in keeping with UN findings that more time in the Box amounts to torture. Nonetheless, the joint agreement includes the Governor’s original proposal to ultimately reducing the time limit to 30 days by April 2022. As a result, too many people will have to wait too long to spend too much time in solitary confinement in New York.
Alternatives: HALT requires that secure Residential Rehabilitation Units be created as humane treatment alternatives, with 6 hours per day of out-of-cell programming plus one hour of out-of-cell recreation. It’s not clear that if and when these will be offered any time soon, or if the out of cell time is included. The Governor has attached a huge cost to these and, as a result, it’s possible that thousands of New Yorkers will suffer in solitary for months to years because we can’t find a way to properly cost out, pay for and build humane alternatives.
Why is that? And why do people of color make up the great majority of individuals in prisons and solitary?
Populations: HALT seeks to exclude individuals who meet one or more of the following criteria: 21 years or younger; 55 years or older; having a physical, mental, or medical disability; pregnant; new mother or a mom who is caring for a child while inside. The agreement excludes adolescents, pregnant women and, we believe, those individuals with mental, physical or medical disabilities who are deemed as being unable to engage in ‘self-care’ in those facilities…promising but more details are needed about how this is defined and by what process.
Other Positive Provisions
Ensuring that incarcerated individuals housed within one of the specialized units will be able to earn an early release back to the general population by completing their rehabilitation program, and without any loss of good time.
Ensuring that incarcerated individuals will not be denied essential services as a form of discipline and DOCCS will not impose restricted diets or any other changes in diet as punishment.
Making clear that solitary confinement will be a reserved punishment for serious conduct that creates significant risk to the safety and security of correctional facilities and the individuals within.
Increasing training of all staff that work within special housing units on de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, trauma-informed care, and dispute resolution.
The Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement is far from over in New York and I know our members will work tirelessly until our goals are met, with all of the dedication and skill that created more strategies with more visibility than I’ve ever seen in this work.
Recall all of the NYS and NYC news conferences and demonstrations, the letter writing and call in efforts, displays of a replica of the Box, tribunals, hunger strikes and special events and actions by over a thousand of our mental health colleagues and greater community, including the incredible dedication of Glenn Liebman and MHANYS and our NYAPRS Board and members.
I will ever be inspired by the extraordinary courage and commitment of our CAIC members and forever haunted and driven by their heartbreaking experiences and stories and their incredible humanity and love.