ALBANY -; Hundreds of people rallied outside the Capitol on Monday to support a bill that would enact sweeping reforms to the use of solitary confinement in local jails and state prisons.
Activist Five Mualimm-ak said he spent five years in isolation for alleged contraband violations during a 12-year prison term. He said it was “torturous” to be confined to the six-foot-by-nine-foot cell.
“Twenty-three hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end,” he said. “We’re talking about human isolation. We’re talking about sensory deprivation. We’re talking about our God-given rights.”
Author, philosopher, and Princeton University Professor Dr. Cornel West served as the keynote speaker. He said “there is no language” to describe the damage caused by such isolation.
“Can you imagine yourself (or) myself under solitary confinement?” he asked. “Would that bring out the positive aspects of who we are? I don’t think so. I think that’s true for any human being.”
Dr. West and the other activists are pushing for the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, introduced by several downstate Democrats in the state Assembly and Senate.
The bill would end solitary confinement of people 21 or younger, people 55 or older, anyone with mental or physical disabilities, pregnant women, new mothers, and people who are — or appear to be — gay.
For everyone else, solitary confinement would be limited to three days for rules violations, and 15 consecutive days for serious offenses. It would ensure more out-of-cell-time and more recreation.
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA) issued a statement criticizing the legislation.
“It is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” the union said.
Many of the state’s correctional facilities are becoming overcrowded with a higher proportion of violent offenders than ever before, the union said, adding that policy changes must prioritize safety.
In response to a lawsuit brought by three inmates, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) agreed in February to a package of reforms independent of the bill.
Changes include banning the use of solitary confinement for prisoners under the age of 18, restricting its use for pregnant women and the developmentally-disabled, and allowing for more out-of-cell time.
“Those are just some of the groundbreaking changes the Department agreed to in the stipulation that will preserve the health and safety of all,” Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci said in a statement.
Annucci’s statement did not specifically address the Department’s position on the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which faces an uncertain fate in the state legislature.
A total of 3,268 inmates in state prisons were in solitary confinement as of Monday, according to DOCCS. It was unclear how many prisoners in county and local jails were in isolation.