A curb on prison cru­elty

Leg­is­la­ture, gover­nor need to reach deal on lim­it­ing use of soli­tary con­fine­ment

The Buffalo News - - OPINION -

In 2015, New York State set­tled a class-ac­tion law­suit brought by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union over the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment for prison in­mates. The five-year set­tle­ment in­cluded sig­nif­i­cant re­forms that the coun­sel for Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo at the time said could serve as a model for the coun­try.

The set­tle­ment ini­tially brought re­sults in re­duc­ing the num­ber of in­mates in soli­tary, but there are still far too many who are sub­ject to this de­hu­man­iz­ing prac­tice. As the clock winds down on the five-year set­tle­ment, there’s a re­newed push for leg­is­la­tion in Al­bany to make per­ma­nent changes in the use of a prac­tice that amounts to a form of state-con­doned men­tal tor­ture.

A bill in the Leg­is­la­ture, the HALT Soli­tary Con­fine­ment Act, was passed by the Assem­bly last year, and won the sup­port of 26 State Sen­ate co-spon­sors, but was not put to a vote by the full Sen­ate. This year, Cuomo put forth an al­ter­na­tive plan in his bud­get ini­tia­tives for the year that would phase in more grad­ual re­forms. Sev­eral el­e­ments of the gover­nor’s plan don’t go far enough, but if he can ne­go­ti­ate with leg­isla­tive lead­ers on a com­pro­mise package it would be a mean­ing­ful start. Mak­ing re­forms to soli­tary con­fine­ment is a high-stakes is­sue that is not well-served by an all-or-noth­ing ap­proach.

The ar­gu­ment for us­ing soli­tary is that it is one of the few means that cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials have to dis­ci­pline in­mates. There is a place for it, such as in iso­lat­ing gang mem­bers from one an­other in prison. But there need to be lim­its placed on the use of soli­tary con­fine­ment as a dis­ci­plinary mea­sure. The HALT Act would al­low the use of what’s eu­phemisti­cally called “spe­cial hous­ing units” only for prison vi­o­la­tions that con­sti­tute a con­crete and im­me­di­ate threat to safety. The gover­nor’s plan would al­low time in such units for nearly any vi­o­la­tion. There is likely a mid­dle ground to be found.

Es­ti­mates for the num­ber of New York in­mates who are locked down in soli­tary on a given day range from 3,000 to 5,000. In­mates are con­fined to a cell no big­ger than a typ­i­cal el­e­va­tor car, get­ting mea­ger meals through a slot in the door, and kept there for up to 23 hours a day. Starved for hu­man con­tact, the in­mates can be heard scream­ing and bang­ing on walls, like a hor­ror movie brought to real life.

In 2015, the United Na­tions adopted “the Man­dela Rules,” which state that hold­ing a per­son in soli­tary con­fine­ment be­yond 15 days is con­sid­ered tor­ture. Yet in New York pris­ons, in­mates can re­main there for months, years or even decades.

The use of spe­cial hous­ing units as a dis­ci­plinary mea­sure is of­ten at the whim of prison guards, who can dis­ci­pline an inmate for the most mi­nor in­frac­tion. As the use of mass in­car­cer­a­tion surged in re­cent decades, over­fill­ing pris­ons with crim­i­nals and the men­tally ill, soli­tary con­fine­ment has grown in use as a way for guards to ex­ert con­trol. There is ev­i­dence that peo­ple of color, Latino and LGBTQ pop­u­la­tions are dis­pro­por­tion­ately put into iso­la­tion.

All of it comes at tre­men­dous cost, both to the in­di­vid­u­als and to so­ci­ety. Peo­ple with var­i­ous forms of men­tal ill­ness may act out in prison and be shut­tled into iso­la­tion, which is likely to ex­ac­er­bate their prob­lems. And far too many pris­on­ers are re­leased from soli­tary di­rectly into free­dom. That’s a dan­ger to com­mu­ni­ties.

Those with ag­gra­vated men­tal ill­ness, or who suf­fer var­i­ous forms of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, can of­ten barely func­tion when sent to the out­side world. In ad­di­tion to their suf­fer­ing, we may all pay a price for crimes they com­mit or the in­or­di­nate amount of re­sources needed to treat their ill­ness and tran­si­tion them into so­ci­ety.

The gover­nor’s own plan, likely in­flu­enced by pres­sure from the cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers’ union, in­volves a phase-in pe­riod. In­mates could be held in soli­tary for a max­i­mum of 90 days start­ing in April 2021, 60 days start­ing in Oc­to­ber 2021, and 30 days start­ing in April 2022. That step-down process seems ex­ces­sive. The HALT Act, by con­trast, would re­strict soli­tary con­fine­ment to 15 con­sec­u­tive days, or 20 in any 60-day pe­riod, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately. That should be the start­ing point for ne­go­ti­at­ing a new rule.

Supreme Court Jus­tice An­thony Kennedy, in a soli­tary con­fine­ment rul­ing in 2015, wrote that lock­ing up pris­on­ers in iso­la­tion brings them “to the edge of mad­ness, per­haps to mad­ness it­self.”

It’s time for New York to end the mad­ness.

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