More Than 100 New York Prison Reform Advocates Push To End Solitary Confinement

More than 100 New York prison reform groups have written a letter to local politicians urging them to place limiting solitary confinement at the top of the 2020 agenda.

The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), along with 137 other progressive groups, wrote a letter to New York State Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stating the importance of signing the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. Some of the advocacy groups who signed the letter include the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Human Rights Watch, Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, Restorative Justice Initiative and many others.

The bill would limit long-term solitary confinement in local and state jails to 15 days, as well as provide rehabilitative and therapeutic programs while an incarcerated individual is in solitary. The proposed legislation would also ban certain incarcerated people from being placed in solitary confinement, including anyone under the age of 21-years-old, over the age of 55-years-old, those who have any kind of physical, mental, or medical disability, those who are pregnant or a new mother who is caring for her child while incarcerated.

In the letter, which was obtained by City & State, the groups urged legislators to pass the bill as soon as the January 2020 legislative session begins. The groups noted that most of the people that are placed in solitary confinement are Black and Latinx people, transgender and gender non-conforming people, young people, and individuals with mental health needs. “Solitary causes devastating mental, physical, and emotional harm, and even death. 30 percent of suicides in New York prisons take place in solitary, and a study in New York City jails found people in solitary are seven times more likely to harm themselves,” the letter read.

The letter also criticized New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed legislation for solitary confinement. In June, Cuomo announced that he had made a joint agreement with the legislature to restrict the use of solitary confinement for “vulnerable populations,” limit the amount of time someone can spend in solitary and increase “the number of specialized units available for individuals leaving solitary confinement,” according to the governor’s website.

But CAIC states that the governor’s plan is problematic. The group previously stated that Cuomo’s proposed legislation will only set the time in solitary to “a 90-day time limit two years from now, then a 60-day limit, and eventually a 30-day limit on solitary” by October 2022, according to the group.

“The Governor has had the power to end this torture since he took office in 2011 and instead he has allowed scores of thousands of people to be subjected to solitary for months, years, and some for decades. His current proposed regulations unfortunately will maintain too much of the status quo and fall far short of what is truly needed to end the torture of prolonged solitary,” the letter read.

On Monday, October 28, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a report titled “Trapped Inside,” which uncovered the current state of solitary confinement in New York State prisons. The report found that in 2018, 40,000 solitary confinement sanctions were given and one-quarter of those sanctions were in the form of special housing unit (SHU), which is the most restrictive form of isolation.

The report also found that as of October 1, 8 percent of those who lived in SHU were between the ages of 18 to 21-years-old or were 55-years-old or older. Thirty-one percent of those people were diagnosed with a mental health challenge, according to the report. NYCLU reported that as of the beginning of October, 99 percent of people living in SHU were men, and 57 percent were of those incarcerated individuals were Black, and 24 percent were Latinx.

NYCLU’s recent report comes just three months after an autopsy report found that 27-year-old Layleen Polanco died in her solitary cell in July from a seizure related to epilepsy, The City reported. Polanco, a transgender woman, was taking a drug called Keppra for epilepsy but was still cleared to be placed in solitary in New York’s Rikers Island jail’s solitary unit, Polanco’s family lawyer, David Shanies, previously told the publication.

“The autopsy confirms what the family suspected from the beginning, which is that Layleen died as a result of indifference and neglect,” Shanies previously told news outlet. “Clearly, she should never have been alone unmonitored in segregation and the fact that a doctor signed off on this is shocking.”

In January, the city agreed to pay $3.3 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old man who died by suicide when he was 22-years-old after spending two years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, The New York Times previously reported. Browder was only 16-years-old when he was arrested in 2010 after he was accused of stealing a backpack.

Browder spent three years at the jail and two of those years he spent in solitary confinement, even though he was never convicted or tried of the crime he was accused of. He was found dead in his parent’s home in 2015, according to The Times. Browder’s death became a symbol of the problems of solitary confinement for youths in the city’s jails.

What can be done about this:

To help pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, there a few things you can do. CAIC will be at the New York State Senate on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 to demand the enactment of the bill. To sign up, click here. To sign the petition to support the bill, click here or to encourage an organization you work with or to endorse the bill, click here.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.