Legislators join prisoners, families hoping to limit solitary confinement

Legislative Gazette photo by Maria Enea
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Corona, speaks on the Humane Alternative to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act and the state prison system.

Lawmakers, survivors of solitary confinements and family members of prisoners are pushing for the enactment of the Human Alternative to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act to put an end to solitary confinement “torture.”

The HALT legislation, (A.3080B/S.4784A) sponsored by Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, D-Corona, and Senator Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, would limit the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement.

The purpose of the bill is to, among other things, create more humane and effective alternatives to confinement and restrict the required criteria which can lead to solitary.

Assemblyman Aubry, the former Assembly Corrections chair, said that to make communities and prisons safer, the process of torturing people under the guidelines of punishment needs to end.

“Torture is not what we’re supposed to be about. We may want people to change their behavior, we may need to put people away from the rest of society in order to effect that change, but we do not need to torture them,” Aubry said. “We do not need to feed them the loaf, we do not need to put them in places where they fight for their sanity and that’s what the whole bill will do.”

The bill would also set provisions, like imposing a 15 consecutive day limit to solitary confinement or 20 days total in a 60 day time period, and prohibit the use of special diets as punishment.

Victor Pate, organizer for the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement and a former inmate who endured solitary confinement, notes that Colorado has implement a 15 day limit to solitary in its prisons and reduced the number of prisoners in solitary from 1,500 to 18.

“According to the U.N. General Assembly, the Mandela Rule states that no one shall be held in any long term solitary confinement past 15 days, and if that does happen, it is considered torture,” Pate said.

The replica solitary confinement cell was unveiled in the entrance Legislative Office Building on Wednesday at a press event with lawmakers, former prisoners, their families and other supporters. The were hoping passers-by, other lawmakers, and maybe even the governor would spend some time inside the cell to experience solitary confinement, even temporarily.

Jerome Wright, a former inmate who experienced solitary confinement, said he is challenging the governor and the commissioner of the Department of Corrections to spend 24 hours in the cell to see what solitary feels like.

Doug van Zandt, who built the replica cell, talked about his own son Benjamin who was charged with grand larceny and reckless endangerment and imprisoned. Benjamin, who was mentally ill, was placed in solitary confinement without treatment and committed suicide.

“The punitive measures used against him in prison, including solitary confinement were absolutely wrong, it was a cell just like this, that he spent the last minutes of his life,” van Zandt said. “He hanged himself after he was taken off his medications by the prison staff and he was left to rot in a cell like this.”