Coalition applying pressure on governor to sign solitary confinement reform bill

Legislative Gazette file photo
Sen. Luis Sepulveda spends time in a reconstructed segregation cell that was on display in the Legislative Office Building in 2019.

A large and vocal coalition is calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill restricting the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. 

On March 18, the New York State Senate passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement, or HALT Act. 

The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar, would “limit the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives to such confinement.” (S.2836

The Assembly version of the bill (A.2277-a) was sponsored by former Assembly Corrections Chair, Jeffrion Aubry.

Legislative Gazette file photo
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, left, is the sponsor of the Assembly HALT bill.

Mental Health advocacy groups, Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups are coming together this week urging the governor to sign the bill.

“I applaud the state legislators who have voted to HALT solitary, and extend my gratitude and congratulations to the advocates who have worked for years to bring us to this moment,” said New York City Public Advocate Juumane Williams. “I call on Governor Cuomo to immediately sign this legislation, despite his past refusal to enact similar reforms through executive authority.”

The bill would limit the amount of time that an inmate can be held in solitary confinement to 15 days. It would also make special considerations for inmates who are below the age of 21 or above the age of 55, suffer from a mental disability, who are pregnant, in the postpartum period (within eight weeks of having delivered a baby) or caring for a child within the facility or those inmates who are at a risk for suicide. 

The bill would also try to set stricter guidelines and conditions under which prisoners may be placed in solitary confinement, would provide for equal quality of food and access to care for inmates held in solitary confinement to those held in general population and would require that solitary confinement be subject to more departmental oversight. 

The bill has been praised by several New York State politicians, activists and human rights advocates, many of which are currently petitioning for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign it immediately. Attempts to pass the bill have been made in the past; in 2019, the bill was shot down with a promise by Gov. Cuomo that his administration would make meaningful reforms to the practice of solitary confinement in New York without it. A year after this promise was made, those reforms have yet to come.

Solitary confinement has long been a controversial topic in the field of criminal justice. While proponents of solitary confinement argue that it can be used to ensure prisoner safety and discipline unruly prisoners, opponents say it equates to torture, leads to mental distress and suicidal ideation and violates prisoners’ human rights. 

In a Zoom press conference this week with several faith leaders, community leaders, activists and people affected by solitary confinement, whether they be survivors of it themselves or family members of survivors, people shared their experiences to help show its effects.

“My brother has been incarcerated, at least 30 years of his life and now that he’s home, he’s still incarcerated mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally” said Britt Pledger. 

Pledger said that, during his brother’s stay in prison, he spent more time in solitary confinement than he did in general population. “If you call his name too loud he jumps up like he’s ready to kill you.

“At home he stays in his room a lot, he’s very unsociable, his mindset is so boggled it’s like everyone’s against him, he’s afraid to be around people although he claims that he doesn’t  because his pride and his ego won’t help him really get the help he needs mentally,” Pledger said.

The observations made by Pledger about his brother, while anecdotal in nature, have scientific weight behind them as well. 

According to a study conducted by Federica Coppola, PhD in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University, solitary confinement has been “associated with a number of potentially irreversible mental conditions,” many of which can lead to “an increased risk of maladaptive action tendencies and socially dysfunctional behaviors, including aggression.” 

To counteract the mental health effects of solitary confinement, the bill would make mental health evaluations before and during the stay in solitary confinement mandatory. It would also make mandatory the creation of Residential Rehabilitation Units, which would be wards in a prison dedicated to provide therapy and mental health counseling to prisoners. For the first time, the bill would also allow for access to legal counsel for inmates who are being held in solitary confinement. This stipulation would allow for better access to appeal in the case of inmates who feel as though they have been wrongly punished.

The stories told by those who experienced solitary confinement themselves, often brought tears to the eyes of those that told them.

“I’ve never been let down by the human race so much, then by the situations I went through [in prison],” said Hector Rodriguez, a former prisoner. Rodriguez recalled a phenomena known as “Fight Night” where the correctional officers would pit younger inmates against one another in fights for their own entertainment.

“That was the most brutal thing I’ve seen in my life,” said Rodriguez, fighting back tears. “To this day, I’m damaged, emotionally, I’m fucked up, excuse my language.”

Rodriguez also recalled how when COVID hit, he and 52 fellow inmates sat in a cell for twenty three and a half hours. 

“We all sat in that cell for twenty three and a half hours waiting for our food to come in a slot through the door like a dog,” said Rodriguez. “I got many stories, I’ve been damaged a lot, I been through the system, I got four times I’ve been through the Department of Corrections. It needs to change.”

Rodriguez’s story brought another former solitary survivor, Danielle Evering, to tears as well.

“I was in there [solitary confinement] for four years straight, I came out was placed in keep-lock (a lesser form of solitary confinement) for two weeks, an officer seen me out that didn’t like me and caused a situation and I was placed back in there, so my total time was six years,” said Evering. 

She recounts being fed substandard food, being hosed, being stripped of her clothes, being forced to bathe herself in a bucket, being prohibited from sending or receiving letters to and from her family and having to be snuck food by other inmates in order to survive.

“It’s very inhumane, it’s unhealthy, and when he was just telling me his story, that’s what made me cry, because I’ve been through so much in my little box,” said Evering.