By Jonathan Sperling
State lawmakers reached an agreement to restrict the use of solitary confinement near the end of the legislative session Thursday, but failed to pass a transformational bill sponsored by Assemblymember Jeff Aubry that had inspired advocates to perform a weeklong hunger strike.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie lamented the fact that Humane Alternatives to Long-Term HALT Solitary bill could not be passed, but unveiled new policies that protect vulnerable incarcerated individuals from solitary, while capping the duration of time incarcerated individuals will be permitted to be housed within a segregated unit at 30 days.
"While we are disappointed that HALT legislation could not be passed this year, we have reached an agreement to dramatically reduce the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities,” the three leaders said in a joint statement released Thursday.
“These new steps build on this year's landmark reforms and will further help to correct inequities and end inhumane practices in our criminal justice system,” they added. “Together we will continue to work on this issue, fight to move this state forward and create a stronger, fairer and more just New York for all."
The HALT bill would have restricted the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days or 20 total days within a two-month period. It also would have mandated 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 terms of the new policy do not go quite as far, but ensure that incarcerated individuals housed within solitary will be able to earn an early release back to general population by completing the programming assigned to them. The measure also promises to increase training of all staff that work within special housing units on de-escalation techniques, implicit bias, trauma-informed care and dispute resolution.
The new policy clarifies that solitary will be reserved only for conduct that creates significant risk to the safety and security of correctional facilities.
Correction officers told the Eagle in April that 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 said.
“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,” the spokesperson added.
Formerly incarcerated individuals who spent time in solitary feel differently, however.
Victor Pate, a statewide organizer for the #HALTsolitary Campaign, was one of many such individuals who urged the state leaders to pass HALT. He was one of a handful of advocates who engaged in a hunger strike.
“There are people I left behind who are still suffering in solitary confinement for years at a time,” Pate, who spent two years in solitary confinement, told the Eagle in May.