Long-Term Solitary Confinement Banned in New York

Keeping inmates in solitary confinement for longer than 15 consecutive days will no longer be allowed in state prisons and jails staring next March.

This screenshot shows a March 8 address at the New York Javits Center by Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Image by Courthouse News)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Long-term solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails is on its way out the door after a yearslong push, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday.

“Generations of incarcerated men and women have been subjected to inhumane punishment in segregated confinement with little to no human interaction for extended periods of time and many experience emotional and physical trauma that can last for years,” Cuomo said in a press release. 

Under the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, jails and prisons can no longer hold an inmate in solitary confinement longer than 15 consecutive days. It also bans solitary confinement entirely for some inmates, including pregnant women, minors and those with disabilities. The legislation is an abbreviation for Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.

Signed into law Wednesday night, the bill will not take effect until March 2022. The new law also includes residential rehabilitation units which aim to provide those incarcerated with therapeutic and trauma-informed programs in a group setting.

Research shows that solitary confinement can link to increased risk self harm, a worse mental health state and higher death rates once released.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said this new law will ease those damaging effects on inmates.

“By limiting the time spent in solitary confinement to no longer than 15 days, the international human rights standard, it limits prisoner suffering and harm,” Haney said in an email. “By mandating the use of alternatives to solitary confinement that provide therapeutic and trauma-informed care, it better addresses the real needs of prisoners and will make the state’s prisons safer in the long run.”  

Haney added he was delighted the bill was passed, and tipped his hat to activists and legislators for getting it done.

“It is the culmination of yearslong advocacy by a number of civil rights, prisoners’ rights and mental health groups, and careful drafting by state legislators to make New York prisons more humane and ultimately more safe,” said Haney. “The bill is excellent and thoughtful and may serve as a model for a number of other states.”

The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement started a campaign eight years ago to bring an end to solitary confinement. Cuomo appeared hesitant, however, pointing to the cost of implementing other rehabilitation measures. Efforts ultimately fell short in 2019, in part because Cuomo received pushback from police unions arguing it would make prisons less safe.

Police unions are still not on board.

“HALT will increase violence against inmates and Correction staff alike, from predatory violent inmates who we will not be able to separate from the general population any longer,” the Nassau County Sheriff’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association tweeted. “HALT will get people killed, plain and simple.”

Jovada Senhouse, who is on the board at the Brooklyn-based advocacy group VOCAL-NY, short for Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders, expressed relief that the bill had finally passed but noted now is not the time to stop fighting.

“We have been fighting to end solitary confinement for too long. As someone who survived solitary confinement myself, I am so relieved that the legislature finally got this passed. Now no one else will have to go through what I went through, which was torture,” Senhouse said in a press release. “To be clear, Governor Cuomo did not help us at all and we have been fighting him this whole time. We won today, but we aren’t done yet.”

For many other states, 2019 was a big year for solitary confinement legislation with 12 states passing reform legislation.

Neighboring New Jersey passed the strongest legislation at the time, limiting solitary confinement to 20 days. Other states such as Nebraska, New Mexico and Georgia also passed laws that year banning solitary confinement for pregnant women.

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