Governor signs bill limiting use of solitary confinement in state prisons

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Governor Cuomo tours Dannemora correctional facility on June 6, 2015. The governor signed a bill on March 31, 2021 that will limit the amount of time prisoners can spend in solitary confinement, and it also restricts certain prisoners from being kept in segregated cells.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act (S.2836/A.2277-a) into law last night, reforming the practice of segregated confinement in state prisons. 

The new law limits the amount of time an incarcerated person can spend in solitary confinement to 15 days; it clearly defines and reduces the number of disciplinary infractions punishable by isolation; and it exempts young, elderly, pregnant, disabiled and mentally ill prisoners from being segregated.

The legislation also establishes Residential Rehabilitation Units to provide incarcerated individuals with therapeutic and trauma-informed programming in a congregate setting. 

Cuomo said upon signing the bill that it will better address an individual’s underlying “criminogenic needs” and provide greater “rehabilitative impacts” to change behavior, helping prisoners transition back to the general population.

“Generations of incarcerated men and women have been subjected to inhumane punishment in segregated confinement with little to no human interaction for extended periods of time and many experience emotional and physical trauma that can last for years,” Governor Cuomo said. “By signing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act into law we are reforming New York’s criminal justice system by helping ensure the effective implementation of proven, humane corrections policies.” 

Mental health advocates from across New York state made a huge push to get this bill passed and signed, sending a letter demanding that Cuomo sign the bill into law, which he did on the last possible day. 

The HALT Act abolishes “the Box” for people with mental, physical or medical disabilities, children, the elderly and pregnant or new mothers. The bill would make mental health evaluations mandatory for all prisoners before and during their stays in solitary confinement. It would also require the creation of Residential Rehabilitation Units, wards in prisons dedicated to providing therapy and mental health counseling.

The bill has support from many social justice, human rights, mental health and religious groups as well as supermajorities in both houses. Editorial boards from The New York Times and the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle have called for the bill to be signed. Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan has also urged for the bill’s passing.

The senate bill (S.2836) was sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar and the Assembly bill (A.277-a) was sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry.

“The HALT Solitary Confinement Act will put an end to the use of long-term solitary confinement in our state, a practice that has perpetuated violence and caused irreparable harm,” Salazr said. “I thank Governor Cuomo for taking action and signing this bill into law. This is a necessary step in making our state’s correctional facilities safer and our communities healthier.”

Solitary confinement has been known to cause immense suffering and devastating physical and mental harm, which can lead to psychosis, heart-disease, self-mutilation and death.

A recent 2019 report by the Correctional Association of New York, found that at least one-third of suicides in New York state prisons took place in solitary confinement, the rate of suicide attempts in solitary confinement was 12 times higher than in the rest of the prisons in 2019. Additionally, 40 percent of inmates with mental illness in solitary confinement reported committing acts of self-mutilation, according to the report.

According to The New York Times, racial discrimination plays a role in who is targeted and sent to solitary confinement as well as African Americans and other people of color occupy those spaces at uneven rates compared to white inmates.

“Solitary confinement has been established by the United Nations as a method of torture,” Assemblyman Aubry said. “The HALT act will not eliminate this practice, but will be regulated in a way which we think is conducive to the long-term betterment of both those who are incarcerated as well as the communities they return to. HALT will improve conditions of confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives to confinement.”