Solitary Confinement Increases in New York State: Report

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Art rendering by Zinc Karas via Flickr.

A report released this week by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) finds that the use of solitary confinement in New York State has increased, despite a 2015 lawsuit aimed at curtailing the practice.

“The total number of disciplinary solitary sanctions has actually increased, from 37,600 in 2015 to 38,249 in 2018,” the NYCLU report found.

The current rise of solitary sanctions is due to a different form of confinement which the report calls “Keeplock Sanctions.”

To many, this type of solitary confinement seems no different than the traditional Special Housing Unit (SHU) sanctions which are imposed for facility or behavioral violations. SHU isolation “keep[s] prisoners isolated for up to 23 hours per day in a bare cell the size of a small elevator.”

Keeplock Sanctions stick to the 23 hours per day of isolation in a similar sized cell, but the individuals are allowed to keep their personal property, according to the report.

The NYCLU describes the average length of a SHU sanction as being 105 days, however the new data shows that “2,600 people were held in SHU for more than 90 days, and 131 people had sanctions of one year or longer.”

The report states that solitary confinement which exceeds 15 consecutive days is torture according to the United Nations. Studies also show extended isolation causes “severe mental and physical trauma and irreparable harm” as well as “dramatically increase[s] the risk of self-harm and suicide,” according to the NYCLU report.

“Long-term solitary confinement is torture and can cause devastating life-long psychological and physical harm,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said.It has no place in New York’s prisons or jails.”

But, with the HALT Act’s passage, there is a humane way forward to stop these practices

The NYCLU believes that the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act represents a “more humane path forward to meaningfully curb the use of solitary confinement.”

Proposed regulations from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) aren’t enough, the report says.

The HALT Act has seen broad bi-partisan support for the bill, however, Assembly and Senate Leadership never introduced it onto the floor to vote.

DOCCS’s proposed regulations came soon thereafter, with Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislators working on amendments.

The NYCLU says the DOCCS restrictions do not adequately limit the length of solitary sentences, and “fail to protect some of the most vulnerable people from the harms of long-term isolation,” according to the report.

The main differences between the two bills are that the HALT Act would limit Keeplock Sanction lengths, eliminate long term SHU confinement by “tens of thousands of sanctions annually,” and cap isolate at the 15-day mark, according to the NYCLU report.

DOCCS would do none of this.

DOCCS’ proposal also doesn’t restrict sanctions that would run consecutively, which would create a loophole allowing people to be held in solitary confinement for months, the NYCLU said.

“The numerical differences alone of who would be barred from being placed in solitary confinement under HALT show that the DOCCS’ regulations are inadequate,” said Michelle Shames, data and research strategist at the NYCLU.

Shames continued, “The data underscores that with DOCCS’ proposed regulatory amendments alone, far too many people would continue to suffer immensely from the harms of solitary confinement.”

Legislators have the opportunity to pass the HALT Act in 2020 to be enacted a year after its passage.

The full report, Trapped Inside: The Past, Present, and Future of Solitary Confinement in New York, can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report.

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