Last year, as a bill that would put major limits on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons loomed in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders unveiled a substitute plan.
The promise: to “overhaul” New York’s practice of punishing prisoners by depriving them of human contact.
A year later, the Cuomo administration has yet to adopt the proposed rules that, with major exceptions, would place a 30-day cap on isolating inmates.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) put forward a new version of its rules the day before the proposal’s Aug. 27 expiration date. The move pushes the deadline for the 30-day limit back a year, until 2023.
Doug Van Zandt, whose son Ben died by suicide in a cell at age 21 after spending time in solitary confinement at Fishkill Correctional Facility, said it has been difficult to muster urgency among elected officials to improve the treatment of prisoners.
“The way the general population in America thinks is that if you committed a crime, then you deserve whatever happens to you in prison, so nobody really cares that much,” Van Zandt said. “And of course, we’ve seen that with a lot of the politicians, like Cuomo.”
Ben Van Zandt’s mother, Alicia Barraza, said he had told her “that if he would have to spend any more time in there, he would lose his mind completely.”
‘Hurtful to People’
People in solitary confinement in New York prisons generally spend 23 or 24 hours alone daily, with an hour of the day in a cage for outdoor “recreation.”
Inmates are frequently isolated in a “special housing unit” or SHU — a small room designated for solitary confinement, with meals delivered through a slot in the door.
The average stay in an SHU cell is 70 days, according to the state prison department. Stints of many months are common, and some prisoners serve years in isolation.
As of Sept. 1, more than 1,700 of the state’s 37,000 prisoners were in SHU cells across New York, according to DOCCS, most of them there for breaking prison rules.
There currently is no limit on the total amount of time that New York state prisoners can be kept in solitary.
“The whole prison system, they love solitary confinement,” Van Zandt said. “Makes it easy for them. But it’s so hurtful to people.”
Critics Call it Torture
The United Nations considers more than 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement to be a form of torture. Colorado implemented that limit after its corrections commissioner spent 20 hours in a solitary cell.
Corrections departments and officer unions generally defend the practice as a tool for control, while health experts say it has profound negative psychological effects.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in June that New York City jails will end solitary confinement, with the city Board of Correction expected to vote on a plan in October.
Rikers Island and other city-run lockups currently limit solitary stints to 30 days, and a person cannot spend more than 60 days in isolation over the course of six months. The city also has banned solitary for people under age 22 and for those with serious mental or physical conditions.
Whether the new deal Cuomo touted last year constituted a meaningful reform has been a matter of disagreement.
The proposals would have imposed a maximum 30-day sanction for solitary special housing units and other designated units by 2022.
But the measures did not address loopholes, such as the unlimited stacking of 30-day penalties or the practice of holding people in solitary known as “keeplock” in their own cells.
People could still spend cumulative years in solitary under the new rules because of those loopholes, advocates point out.
An ‘Ineffective’ Rule Change
The state bill that had gained momentum, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), would have limited stays in solitary confinement to 15 days.
The June 2019 joint announcement of the deal struck by Cuomo, by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said they were “disappointed that HALT legislation could not be passed this year.” But the bill had enough co-sponsors to pass on their votes alone.
Jerome Wright, statewide organizer with the campaign to pass the HALT bill, called the governor’s rule changes “ineffective” and “a lie.”
“Regulations he proposed last year as part of a backroom deal with New York’s legislative leaders to supposedly ‘overhaul solitary confinement policies’ proved to be nothing more than a press release, while mostly Black and brown New Yorkers continue to suffer months and years in solitary,” Wright said in a statement.
Phil Desgranges, senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the failure to adopt the rules underscored why lawmakers should pass the bill rather than rely on administrative changes.
“A year later, we are in no better position to end the inhumane use of solitary in New York state,” he said.
Thomas Mailey, a state prisons spokesperson, said the rules needed to be revised and re-issued because of a change this year to move adolescents to facilities run by the state Office of Children and Family Services. References to adolescents were removed from the proposed rules.
Mailey said several reforms have already been implemented ahead of the rules being adopted, including time cuts for people in keeplock. DOCCS did not explain why the rule re-issuing came on the last day before the proposals expired.
‘Inhumane and Unconstitutional’
In 2016, DOCCS agreed to a series of limitations on its use of solitary confinement as part of a lawsuit settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The group filed a class action against the Cuomo administration in 2012, arguing that the punishment was “arbitrary, inhumane and unconstitutional.”
As part of the deal, DOCCS agreed to stop using solitary for teens and pregnant women, and to limit its use to 30 days for people who are developmentally disabled.
As a result, the number of people serving “special housing unit” sentences in designated SHU cells decreased to 1,476 in 2019 from 2,533 in 2016, according to DOCCS.
Barraza, an environmental engineer, said her family had once been among those who never thought solitary confinement would touch their lives.
“But when it comes to mental illness or drug addiction or any kind of substance abuse, which is a big problem nowadays, yeah, your son or daughter or a family member could be involved in the criminal system,” she said.
“And more than likely, they will probably end up in solitary at some point.”