NY lawmakers set to pass limits on solitary confinement

Mar 18, 2021

Solitary confinement in New York’s prisons would be severely limited under legislation set to pass this week in Albany, where a majority of Democrats who control the state Legislature support the measure.

The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act, was approved by the Assembly Tuesday and is scheduled to pass in the Senate on Thursday.

“On Thursday, we will be passing HALT,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester. “I know so many people have been really hoping we do, and we’re happy that we’re going to be able to do that.”

Under the legislation, incarcerated individuals would not be allowed to spend more than 15 days in solitary confinement. There’s currently no limit on how long someone can spend in solitary, with some incarcerated people reporting months-long stints in isolation.

Those who spend time in solitary confinement would then be transferred to what the legislation refers to as a residential rehabilitation unit.

Those units would be used to provide therapy, treatment, and other rehabilitative programming for individuals who’ve spent time in solitary confinement. That would help those individuals resolve issues that might have landed them in solitary, supporters have said.

The legislation would also, among other things, ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant individuals, those living with certain disabilities, and anyone under the age of 22, and older than 54.

And people who’ve been determined to suffer from a serious mental illness would also be ineligible for solitary confinement under the legislation. They would, instead, be sent to a residential rehabilitation unit for further evaluation.

Democrats have had the votes to pass the HALT bill for the last two years, but received significant pushback on the measure from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It was set to pass two years ago, but Cuomo had threatened to veto the measure over its projected cost. His office had placed a $350 million price tag on the legislation at the time —  a number that lawmakers have disputed.

The Partnership for Public Good, a think-tank in Buffalo, has since released a report that claims the HALT bill would actually save the state money, not cost it.

But rather than risk the veto, Democrats decided to pull the bill at the time and allow Cuomo to, instead, make a series of administrative changes through the regulatory powers of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

Those regulations, announced nearly two years ago, were never finalized. Though, spokespeople for DOCCS have said that some of the regulatory changes had already been implemented, or were in the works.

Now, a new slate of Democrats elected in last year’s elections have agreed to approve the HALT bill, regardless of whether Cuomo intends to sign or veto it.

And they have the numbers to do it. Assuming each Democrat in the State Senate agrees to vote for the bill, they now have a veto-proof supermajority in the chamber to override a decision from Cuomo to block the measure. The Assembly already had such a majority.

Cuomo has not commented publicly on the bill in more than a year, and spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its expected passage this week.

The legislation is also opposed by NYSCOPBA, the union that represents correction officers at the state’s prisons. They’ve argued that solitary confinement in New York isn’t what it’s made out to be, and that the sanction is used to protect other individuals, not just to punish some.

Mike Powers, president of NYSCOPBA, said last year that the legislation could make prisons less safe, both for staff and other incarcerated individuals, particularly as reports of violence continue to increase in those facilities.

“When I go back to the society analogy, bad actors that disrupt society in the streets are removed from society to maintain the safety and security,” Powers said. “It’s the same premise in a correctional facility.”

Powers has also said that, in many instances, people placed in solitary confinement already receive a specialized level of attention and services than those in the general population, with a goal toward rehabilitation.

Supporters of the bill have argued that prison staff would still be able to isolate certain individuals from others, and that the sanction is currently used to punish people for both violent and non-violent acts.

In a letter to Democrats who lead the state Legislature, a coalition of more than 200 groups urged them to approve the measure this week, arguing that the practice doesn’t benefit incarcerated individuals.

“Rather than addressing the root causes of any problematic behaviors, solitary confinement breeds trauma, despair, and serious mental illness,” the groups wrote.

If approved by Cuomo, the HALT bill would take effect a year after he signs it.