Fate Of Bill Limiting Solitary Confinement Now Up to Cuomo After Senate Approval | WAMC

Fate Of Bill Limiting Solitary Confinement Now Up to Cuomo After Senate Approval

Mar 18, 2021

The fate of legislation that would severely limit the use of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons is now in the hands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has opposed the bill in the past over what his office projected as the cost of the measure.

The State Senate gave final passage on Thursday to the bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT. The Assembly passed it Tuesday.

Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democrat from Brooklyn who chairs the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, called the practice of solitary confinement “torture,” and said the HALT bill is in line with other criminal justice reforms approved in recent years.

“The passage of HALT in the Senate brings us one step closer to bringing justice to all those who have lost loved ones to the wrongful use of solitary, and the New Yorkers who have been victims of this state-sanctioned torture,” Salazar said.

Under the legislation, incarcerated individuals would not be allowed to spend more than 15 days in solitary confinement, and would be entitled to a disciplinary hearing before they’re sent to any form of segregated placement. 

There’s currently no limit on how many days someone can spend in solitary, with some incarcerated people reporting months-long stints in isolation.

Those who spend time in solitary confinement, under the bill, would be transferred to what the legislation refers to as a residential rehabilitation unit after their time in isolation ends. 

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.

Advocates have rallied at the state capitol in Albany for the last several years in support of the bill. Democrats had held it from passage over the last two years over concerns that it would be vetoed by Cuomo, who said in 2019 that it would cost too much to implement.

Cuomo hasn’t commented publicly on the legislation, and representatives from his office did not respond this week to inquiries about his current position.

His office had projected that it would cost the state north of $350 million to implement the legislation, with additional costs for localities. Lawmakers have disputed that amount, and research has also argued that the bill would save the state money over time. 

Cuomo doesn’t have a deadline for acting on the bill. He typically doesn’t act on legislation until lawmakers send it to him for consideration, which they usually do when Cuomo’s office requests specific bills. But there are times when legislation is sent without a request.

It’s also possible that Cuomo will try to negotiate what’s called a chapter amendment, which is essentially a promise from the Legislature to amend the bill after it’s approved.

When he was against the bill two years ago, Cuomo decided to propose a series of regulatory changes on solitary confinement at state prisons instead. Those regulations were never finalized, though the state has said that some of the changes are already in the works.

The legislation has also been opposed by NYSCOPBA, the union that represents correction officers. 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.

Jerome Wright, a statewide organizer for the #HALTsolitary Campaign, said the HALT bill will require the state to implement practices targeted more at rehabilitation than punishment. Wright said he spent more than seven years in solitary confinement. 

“For many years, survivors of solitary confinement and families who have lost loved ones in solitary have led a campaign to end this torture and replace it with safer and more effective interventions,” Wright said.

Dan Clark is the managing editor of New York NOW, a product of public media covering state government, policy, and politics.