By David Brand
An Assembly bill that would curtail the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons and jails picked up its 76th cosponsor this month, giving it a majority in the chamber and moving it one step closer to passing.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary bill, sponsored by Queens Assemblymember Jeff Aubry, would restrict the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 20 total days within a two-month period. The bill would also mandate that, after 15 days, individuals be moved to rehabilitative and therapeutic units that provide programs, therapy and support services with at least six hours a day spent outside a cell.
The legislation achieved a majority of sponsors in the state Senate last month. A similar version of the bill passed the Assembly last year but failed in the Senate.
“People in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement are locked down for 22 to 24 hours a day, without meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy, in cells smaller than the average parking space,” says the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement on its website. “These conditions cause human beings to deteriorate psychologically, physically and also harms their families and communities.”
The NYCAIC, a coalition of justice reform organizations, will demonstrate outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Office on Tuesday to denounce solitary confinement and to advocate for passage of the bill as part of the #HALTsolitary Campaign.
HALTsolitary Campaign outreach specialist Jack Davis spent seven years in solitary confinement and called on the state legislature to pass the bill without changes.
“We need it passed as-is, not watered-down, because right now it enhances safety for both people in prison and staff,” Davis said. “The sickness of solitary affects both. We need our legislators to follow the laws of humanity. This is a humanitarian issue.”
Samuel Cabassa, another #HALTsolitary Campaign member who said he spent seven to eight years in solitary confinement, described the punishment as “dehumanizing.”
"The truth is that solitary confinement means being alone all day, every day, in most cases. It's 23 hours alone in a cell, but what happens when you are let out for that other hour? You're a human being alone in a steel cage and they call it recreation,” Cabassa said. “It's a lie. I know because I lived it.”
A 2017 Yale study found that roughly 80,000 people were held in solitary confinement across the United States. NYCAIC estimates that 4,000 people are held in solitary confinement inside New York jails and prisons.
Correction officers say solitary confinement is a standard disciplinary tool for maintaining order in detention facilities.
“The proposed ‘Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement’ Act, or “HALT,” would directly threaten the future of special housing units in state correctional facilities, which were created to protect both incarcerated individuals and officers,” a spokesperson for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association told the Eagle. “The backwards goal of the HALT legislation is to further limit the ability of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to utilize special housing units as a disciplinary measure or deterrent to unauthorized behavior, including crimes within the prison.”
“A vote for HALT is a vote against safe prisons and the hard-working men and women of organized labor,” the spokesperson continued. “With prison violence rates at their highest to date, now is certainly not the time to be removing one of the few disciplinary actions available.”
New York City banned the use of solitary confinement for detainees under 22 in city jails in 2015, but began transferring some young people to jails outside the city where solitary confinement is still legal. The city also limited the duration that a detainee or inmate can be held in solitary confinement in 2015.
The measures were inspired by the death of former Rikers Island detainee Kalief Browder, who committed suicide two years after his release. Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack at age 16 and spent three years in jail — including two years in solitary confinement — while he awaited trial. The charges were ultimately dismissed.
The prolonged isolation permanently affected Browder’s mental health and contributed to his suicide, mental health experts and justice reform advocates say. His family received $3.3 million from the city in a settlement earlier this year.