State proposal to limit solitary confinement gains traction in Erie County Legislature

Oct 1, 2020

The Erie County Legislature may vote next week whether to pass a resolution supporting a state proposal that would limit the amount of time an inmate may be kept in solitary confinement. The resolution will be sent to the full legislature following passage Thursday by its Public Safety Committee.

What is known as the HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term) Solitary Confinement Act remains in committees in both the State Senate and Assembly.

The Erie County Legislature Public Safety Committee, chaired by Howard L. Johnson, Jr., held a meeting Thursday during which they discussed the state's proposed reform on solitary confinement in prisons.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The Senate's version, in part, "prohibits placement of individuals who are in one of the special populations in SHU and limits their keep-lock placement to 48 hours; prohibits placement of any inmate in segregated confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 out of 60 days unless specific acts are committed while in such confinement; specifies certain conditions of confinement and programs within residential rehabilitation units; creates a safety exception for people committing serious disciplinary infractions in SHU and residential rehabilitation units; prohibits the use of restraints in the residential rehabilitation units unless necessary for safety and security; prohibits placement of individuals in protective custody in segregated confinement; provides for periodic review of a person's placement in residential rehabilitation units; reinstates lost good time for successful completion of the residential rehabilitation unit program goals; provides for training of staff; and provides for public reporting."

Three members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement spoke before the Erie County Legislature Public Safety Committee at its Thursday morning meeting. Among them was Jerome Wright, who spent 30 years in prison, some of which included time in solitary confinement.

"There is no public safety benefit to putting anybody in solitary confinement for weeks, months, years and decades, and then releasing them back into the general population or back into society, without having the benefit of some therapy, educational programming, religious services, or meaningful human contact," Wright said via telephone.

Supporters of the proposed act say prolonged stays in solitary confinement raise the risk of adverse mental health conditions and, in turn, raising risks of harm to the individual, fellow inmates and corrections officers.

The campaign's Steve Hart says the proposal is actually pro-corrections officer, stating that similar reform elsewhere has proven successful.

"The experience of states that have reformed solitary has been that violence has gone down, rather than up," he said. "The safety is enhanced, because the people are less upset, less full of rage, less mentally disturbed and so on, and the correction officers have found that it actually benefits them in the long run."

Legislators Joseph Lorigo and Edward Rath III raised questions about the cost of refitting the county's corrections facilities. While saying the report has not yet been released, Wright answered that cost projections by the Cuomo administration, which puts the statewide price tag between $350 million and $1 billion, are "grossly overstated." Lorigo prefaced his question by expressing his support for reform. Rath represented the committee's only "no" vote, saying he wanted to see more information on potential costs before voting on the resolution.

Wright said the issue is not just a criminal justice matter but also one of racial inequity. He noted that 30 percent of the state's population are Black or Brown people, but 50 percent of those Black and Brown people in the state are in prison. And among them, he stated, 60 percent have been placed in solitary confinement.

"At this time, in this history of this country, we should not be arguing about putting more Black people in a situation that will make them more of a detriment to themselves and society," he said. "We should be finding ways to make sure that people come out of that experience better, not bitter, good citizens who are ready to be productive members of society."