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Advocates seek stricter limits to solitary confinement

American Civil Liberties Union

Advocates of ending solitary confinement in New York's prisons ended the 2019 legislative session disappointed that changes made to the practice did not go further, and they say they'll be back to fight for more progress.

One advocate, Victor Pate, spent 90 days in solitary confinement when he was serving a prison term for robbery. That was 23 years ago, but Pate said he still feels like a trauma survivor. 

"It doesn't take but a moment for me to be transformed back to that moment," Pate said. "Because I never, ever got treatment for the trauma that I suffered."

Pate is now part of the advocacy group HALT Solitary Confinement, the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. He and others spent several days outside the Senate and Assembly chambers in the closing days of the session. Some even camped out outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo's offices one night, while others went on a hunger strike.

HALT's Scott Paltrowitz said the practice of confining inmates to small cells for 23 hours a day, with one hour for exercise, is cruel and inhumane.

He said the United Nations agrees, and in 2015, its General Assembly -- with the approval of the United States -- passed what are known as the Mandela Rules. They're named after former South African President Nelson Mandela, who endured decades in prison under the country's former apartheid government. The U.N. found that more than 15 days in a row in solitary confinement is equivalent to torture. 

"In New York, people regularly spend months and years and even decades in solitary confinement. People have spent 30 years (there)," Paltrowitz said. "It's barbaric. It has to stop." 

The advocates say the sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction and the hours of idleness can lead to severe psychological damage and often exacerbates the behavior that led to the inmate's confinement in the first place. People of color and the mentally ill are disproportionately sent to solitary confinement in the state's prisons.  

Pate and Paltrowitz had hoped that the all-Democratic state Legislature would act on a bill to limit solitary confinement to a maximum of 15 days in a row, and no more than 20 days in a 60-day period. Under the bill, solitary confinement would be used as a punishment for committing a violent act, possessing a dangerous weapon or trying to escape. The prisons would also have to provide therapeutic rehabilitation for the prisoner afterward. The bill also would prohibit anyone younger than 21 or older than 55 from being put into solitary confinement, and would ban the punishment for anyone with a physical, mental or medical disability.

Prison guard unions, including the New York City-based Correction Officers Benevolent Association, opposed the bill, saying that further limiting solitary confinement would lead to more assaults on guards. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said the bill is anti-union, puts the lives of its members in danger and compromises the safety of other inmates. 

In the final hours of the session, Cuomo and the Legislature agreed to a more limited measure that would restrict solitary confinement to 30 days and prohibit minors, pregnant women and disabled inmates from solitary confinement. Corrections officers will undergo training and set up rehabilitation services for those released from solitary confinement. Prisons will also no longer be able to limit an inmate's diet as a form of punishment while in solitary.

Cuomo also raised objections about what he said would be a billion dollars in potential costs to dismantle the solitary confinement cells. He spoke on Albany public radio station WAMC.  

"Frankly, I don't want to build a billion dollars' worth of new jails," Cuomo said on June 20. "I'm proud that we've closed more jails, I'm looking for alternatives to incarceration."  

The New York State Association of Counties agreed, saying while the bill is "noble in its intent," the changes represent an "enormous unfunded mandate" that would be financed by taxpayers.  

Paltrowitz said the claim of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs is a "red herring."

Pate said if solitary confinement is limited to 15 days, there would be fewer people in the units. 

"There are actually units right now that can be converted for the use of residential rehabilitation," said Pate. "Which doesn't require a cost."

The advocates say they will return when the legislative session resumes in a few months.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.