Activists on a hunger strike hoping to convince New York state lawmakers to vote on a bill to end long-term solitary confinement gathered Monday at the capitol.
Activists launched the #HaltSolitary hunger strike last Thursday. They say solitary confinement is torture; isolation can leave life-long psychological scars. "People come by and look at you like you in a cage every day. The fact that they have individuals that come by that are psychiatrists indicate that they are looking to see if the person is at the breaking point," said Anthony Dixon, who served two years in solitary at the Southport Correctional Facility in New York's Southern Tier.
"In New York state we have conditions that allow people to go inside of a prison, even for females that are pregnant. 30 percent of the people that commit suicide inside of our New York state prisons do so inside of solitary confinement. It's called 'special housing,' but there's nothing special about the condition which causes people to take their lives and that robs them of hope."
HALT, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, would ban prisons from holding inmates away from others for more than 15 consecutive or 20 days total in a 60-day time frame. Dickson says the measure would save money. "We do know that if the governor was to close just one facility, one big house that allows people to be put inside of these conditions, primarily I'm speaking about Southport, to name names, Five Points, one of those facilities would save millions of dollars."
Dixon and fellow advocates say the current punishment paradigm isn't working. "New York has this as one of their most slavery-like methodologies in that it continues to disproportionately punish people of color in upstate rural areas. These are torture chambers."
HALT Solitary campaign member Scott Paltrowitz:
"There are 34 co-sponsors on this bill in the Senate, there are 79 co-sponsors in the Assembly. Can you tell me any other bill currently pending in the legislature that as that many supporters that has not yet been brought to a vote. This bill passed the Assembly last year. We're looking forward to the Senate and the Assembly to pass this bill — this is torture — we are torturing our fellow New Yorkers and it has to stop."
The strikers have vowed to fast until the end of the session on Wednesday, or until the bill is voted on and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Speaking Monday on WAMC's Roundtable, Cuomo said isolation cells are still being used too often, and expressed concern that HALT could pave the way for construction of new prison facilities. "I agree that we have to do reforms, that it’s gone way too far and much of the treatment is inhumane. I don't want to build $300 million in new prison cells. I am proud that I've closed more prison cells than any governor in the history of the state of New York."
Mike Powers is president of NYSCOPBA, the corrections officers union: "A vote for a HALT is a direct attack on labor and the law enforcement community. I want to make sure that every member of the legislature understands the ramifications of their vote. If passed we will hold them accountable for future prison violence, which is already at dangerous levels. I urge the legislature to act responsibly and protect our union sisters and brothers."
The AP reports a thousand mental health professionals and advocates from around New York signed a letter to state leaders urging HALT's passage.