New York Lawmakers Move to Limit Solitary Confinement

This June 2014 photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (CN) – As the clock ticks toward a new legislative session in New York, the battle continues over the future of solitary confinement in the Empire State.

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a new study Monday detailing the widespread use of solitary confinement in state prisons. The group is pushing for the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement, or HALT, Act in January.

State Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda, D-Bronx, introduced the bill earlier this year.

“Look,” he said in a phone interview Monday, “as a general principle, I have not been able to get any kind of data that establishes that solitary confinement is a useful method of changing behavior.”

The bill – which sets limits on the use of solitary confinement – garnered wide support in the Democratic-led Legislature but was never brought to the floor for a vote because Governor Andrew Cuomo had indicated he would veto it, citing retrofitting costs of $1 billion, Sepúlveda said. It’s unclear where the price tag came from.

Instead, the issue was tackled by a regulatory arm, including a looser set of proposals by a state agency called the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS. Monday is the last day of the public comment period on the DOCCS proposals, which the NYCLU calls inadequate. A Cuomo representative asked for comment on the near-veto Monday forwarded the query to the DOCCS, which said it was proud to have reduced the number of people serving a solitary sanction from 2,533 to 1,490 individuals – a reduction of 41%.

The NYCLU published Monday’s report as the result of a lawsuit against the agency, which allowed it to access previously unreleased data.

Sepúlveda said he plans to reintroduce the legislation in the January session, but declined to provide details on the ongoing negotiations.

“The objective is for all of us to end solitary confinement, so conversations are geared towards that,” the lawmaker said, adding that he does understand the short-term need to isolate violent inmates.

The proposed bill comes as New York City attempts to overhaul its incarceration system by building four new borough-based jails and closing Rikers Island. Transgender epileptic inmate Layleen Polanco died in solitary at Rikers this summer. Kalief Browder died by suicide at age 22 after his release from Rikers, where he was held in solitary for two years.

It remains largely unclear how solitary will be handled in the new jails in New York City, though NYCLU policy counsel Nicole Triplett was optimistic in an interview Monday.

“We are holding them accountable to significantly reducing their reliance on isolation,” Triplett said. She said the city told the NYCLU units in the new buildings would be uniform and have the same access to natural light.

The NYCLU study focuses on prisons, citing a lack of data on solitary in jails. That lack of data is “clearly a problem,” said Sepúlveda, adding that he intends to address the issue with separate legislation.

The HALT Act includes jails, but the DOCCS’ recommendations do not, says the NYCLU’s report — meaning that the new borough-based jails would not be covered under those regulations.

Sepúlveda said that if HALT passes, jails would have a little longer than prisons to come into compliance with the law, including the four new jails in New York City.

New York City already restricts the use of solitary confinement somewhat. It has banned the practice for people under 22, and adults cannot be isolated more than 30 days at a time. The HALT Act would ban solitary statewide for people under age 21 and over age 55, pregnant people or those who have just given birth or are caring for a child, or with a disability.

The United Nations has characterized solitary confinement periods of over 15 days as torture.

The HALT Act would ban periods of solitary confinement longer than 15 consecutive days, and would ban it entirely for people with physical and mental disabilities.

Mike Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the powerful union that represents correction officers in New York, called the UN’s assessment “absolutely absurd.” He called the NYCLU’s report propaganda.

“Forgetting about the UN, let’s talk about common sense,” he said in a phone interview. “Assaults on correction officers are torture.”

Skelly said Sepúlveda, as well as experts and think tanks, don’t know what incarceration is actually like for those inside.

“If you don’t have some form of consequence [for violent inmates], you’re letting them do the same thing over and over again,” he said.

The NYCLU’s Triplett pushed back.

“You don’t have to be there to know that 120 days in isolation is harmful to people,” she said.

Earlier this year, New Jersey voted to restrict solitary confinement to 20 consecutive days.

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