New York Adopts ‘Nelson Mandela’ Rules Curbing Use of Solitary

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Johnny Perez of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture sits in a mock solitary cell installed at the John Jay College campus in 2018—similar to the one he spent three years in at Rikers. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

New York will become one of the first states to adopt the so-called “Nelson Mandela Rules” to place limits on the use of solitary confinement.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday signed into law a bill that will restrict prisons and jails from holding people in solitary confinement — nearly all-day isolation — for more than 15 consecutive days, reports The New York Times.

The law also bars the practice entirely for several groups, including minors and people over 55, pregnant women, and people with disabilities.

Curbs on solitary have long been supported by advocates for incarcerated people, who have raised concerns about the mental health ramifications of solitary confinement and the apparent racial inequity in its use. Black and Latino people make up about 70 percent of the state’s prison population and represent more than four-fifths of those in solitary confinement.

Other provisions in the law focus on the mental health consequences of solitary confinement. The law would require screenings for suicide risk and the creation of new rehabilitation units for prisoners who need to be separated from the general population for more than 15 days.

“Having spent a lot of time with the advocates who have direct stakes in this bill, this is deeply meaningful,” state Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said in an interview with The New York Times on Wednesday evening before the bill became law.

This will make New York one of the first states to follow rules adopted by the United Nations known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, according to the New York Civil Liberty Union (NYCLU).

In response to the bill’s signing, the NYCLU issued the following statement from  executive director Donna Lieberman:

“The torture that is long-term solitary confinement will come to an end in New York state, banning the physical and mental abuse that has caused irreparable harm to tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are disproportionately Black and Latinx.”

She continued: “Thanks to tireless advocacy from survivors of solitary confinement, parents of children lost to this inhumane practice, Albany lawmakers, and partner organizations, New York now leads the nation as the first state to codify the UN Mandela Rules into law, which restrict the use of solitary only to exceptional circumstances.”

“Ending mass incarceration requires replacing punishment with rehabilitation, and our state has now taken a much overdue step towards dignity,” Lieberman continued.

Colorado barred use of long-term isolation in its prisons in 2017, and two years later, New Jersey restricted use of solitary confinement to 20 consecutive days.

At least 11 other states, including Georgia, Nebraska and New Mexico, in 2019 also limited or banned punitive segregation for certain groups.

large body of research also links solitary confinement to increased risks for self-harm and suicide, worsened mental illness and higher rates of death after release, said The New York Times.

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