Sign bill to end long-term solitary confinement
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Long-term solitary confinement is torture.
That was the first sentence of a D&C editorial two years ago calling for New York state to end an inhumane and counter-productive practice in New York state prisons.
It is also the first sentence of today’s editorial because long-term solitary confinement remains in effect. The difference now is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature is all that’s needed to relegate long-term solitary confinement to the dustbin of history in New York.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act would put strict restrictions on when solitary could be employed. It has been passed by both the state Assembly and the state Senate.
Gov. Cuomo should waste no time in making the measure state law.
What the bill would do:
∫ Put a 15-day limit on solitary confinement.
∫ Ban the use of special diets as punishment.
∫ Require a mental health screening before solitary is assigned.
∫ Mandate a heightened level of care for prisoners in segregated confinement or residential rehabilitation units.
∫ Limit inmates from being in segregated confinement not only for no more than 15 days straight, but no more than 20 out of 60 days.
Why does this matter? For one, current practice violates the United Nations’ “standard minimum rules” for the treatment of prisoners. The United States loses credibility in promoting human rights elsewhere in the world when our own practices are cruel and inhumane.
For another, The Legislative Gazette on Friday cited a Columbia University study that associates long-term solitary confinement with “a number of potentially irreversible mental conditions.” These stem from sensory deprivation, lack of interaction with others and seemingly endless idle time in a space about the size of an elevator.
These research findings are deeply concerning. They indicate such confinement leads to lifelong harm for a prisoner who’s been kept “in the box” for lengthy periods of time measured in weeks, months or years. And it signals that the public itself can be harmed upon that prisoner’s release because the mental conditions can lead to aggressive behavior, the research shows.
The Legislative Gazette article also details a Zoom video call conducted last week by the bill’s advocates, among them religious leaders. One speaker was a sibling of a former prisoner who spent extended time in solitary.
“His mindset is so boggled, it’s like everyone’s against him,” the speaker said. “He’s afraid to be around people.”
That is simply tragic. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, long-term solitary confinement is tearing them down and reducing substantially the likelihood those prisoners will become productive members of society after serving their time.
A punishment with such dire impact has no place in our prisons or our society. For one, the general public has no way of knowing if decisions made to place a particular prisoner into long-term solitary are made for arbitrary and capricious reasons.
For another, our corrections officers will be safer, and their jobs made easier, if the state Department of Corrections simply invests more into mental-health treatment.
As the D&C’s 2019 editorial stated, “prisons in Mississippi, North Dakota and Maine experienced marked declines in violence when they reduced the population in solitary confinement.”
So will New York’s. Sign the law please, governor.