Bill would limit solitary confinement in New York prisons to 15 days

Legislative Gazette photos and video by Austin Fearnley

State legislators recently spent part of their day in a 6-foot by 9-foot replica solitary confinement cell to raise awareness for a bill that would drastically reduce the amount of time inmates can spend in isolation.

The Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement Act (S.1623/A.2500) was written to restrict the use of segregated confinement in New York state while offering more rehabilitative alternatives. The proposed bill would end long-term isolation, and limit inmates’ stay in solitary confinement to 15 days. Currently, there is no limit as to how long inmates can be placed in solitary.

The bill would also ban certain populations from enduring solitary confinement for any length of time, including any person 21 years or younger, 55 years or older, pregnant, a new mother, or someone with a physical, mental, or medical disability.

For female inmates, an isolated cell is dangerous and humiliating. Women who are menstruating do not receive adequate sanitary napkins and are provided a bucket of water for supplemental “bucket bathing” because they are limited to two or three showers a week. The negative impacts continue with fear, anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings — and for abuse survivors — re-traumatization.

Thousands of people are going through what Assemblyman Jeff Aubry calls an “improper procedure,” in New York prisons and jails each day. According to the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolation Confinement, 60 percent of people held in long-term solitary confinement units in New York are black. Another large population subject to this treatment is the mentally ill. More than 800 people on the Office of Mental Health caseload remain in these conditions everyday.

Aubry sponsors the Assembly bill and Luis Sepulveda sponsors it in the Senate. Supporters of the legislation argue that this type of isolation is a form of torture. The sensory deprivation, lack of normal interaction, and extreme idleness of solitary can lead to intense suffering and severe psychological, physical and even neurological damage, say sponsors and supporters of the bill.

“We have a prison system that fails us,” said Assemblyman Joe Lentol. “We treat people like animals.”

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Mandela Rules, which the U.S. was a proponent of, in prohibiting any person from being held in solitary for more than 15 days.

Colorado was the first state to adhere to this suggestion and others are considering similar limitations. New York, however, has no limitations on the time inmates can spend in solitary.

Rich Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Correction, spent 20 hours in a solitary cell. After experiencing it firsthand, the state reduced the number of inmates held in solitary from 1,500 to 18. The HALT solitary organization has invited Cuomo and DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci to spend a day in solitary to get a glimpse of what segregated inmates endure every day.

The #HALTsolitary organization brought previously incarcerated people to talk about their experiences in solitary confinement. A man named Johnny Perez spoke about the minor infractions it takes to land yourself in isolation for weeks, or months.

“We respond punitively, without really addressing the underlying issues or passing policies that decrease the likelihood that people will be placed in these spaces,” Perez said. “Contrary to popular belief, people are not there for the most egregious, violent acts. Most of the people that are there, are there for minor offenses.”

Sen. Luis Sepulveda spent 23 minutes in the replicated solitary confinement cell at the event to symbolize the 23 hours that prisoners face in solitude each day.

“You can feel the limitations. I think if I was in solitary confinement for a day, I would be a different person when I came out,” Sepulveda said. “It’s not somewhere a human being should live. It’s no way to treat a human being regardless of their behavior.”

The replica solitary cell exhibit was created in memory of Ben Van Zandt, someone who at the age of 21 commited suicide in a cell just like the one Sepulveda experienced. Ben’s parents came to Albany to share his story, speaking about the horrific sexual, physical, and verbal abuse he faced from inmates that were twice his age, and even the correctional officers.

“About a year into his sentence he was preyed upon by an older inmate who sexually assaulted him. Instead of protecting him, the guards put Ben in solitary confinement for 70 days, even though he was a victim,” explains Doug Van Zandt, Ben’s father. It was only from the help of his parents and state legislators that he was removed from solitary confinement and transferred to another prison.