By Stephen Hart
About 5,000 New Yorkers wake up each morning in a barren concrete box the size of an elevator, which they will leave only for one hour of solitary “recreation” in a walled outdoor cage of the same size. Meals and medical care come through a slot in the door. There is no educational or rehabilitative programming, no access to worship services, no meaningful human interaction.
These conditions destroy people’s minds and souls. According to the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, unanimously adopted in 2015 with strong support from the U.S., nobody should be in solitary more than 15 days, or even one day for youth and other vulnerable persons. Human rights experts consider solitary confinement beyond 15 days a form of torture.
Yet in New York, people typically spend months and often years in what are euphemistically called “special housing units." Even youth and people with mental health problems go into SHU. This treatment is disproportionately inflicted on members of minority groups.
You might think that only people who have attacked staff or other imprisoned people would be put in solitary. But instead, it is used routinely as a punishment for nonviolent, even trivial violations of prison rules. Solitary is not, as often claimed, part of a rational discipline system using rewards and sanctions to mold behavior, since it makes those subjected to it mentally ill, less able to follow rules, more angry and prone to violence. States that have reduced reliance on solitary have seen prison violence go down, not up. Our practices are both impractical and inhumane.
Some reforms have been made, through the SHU Exclusion Law and a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, but they are deeply inadequate, having resulted in only a small reduction in the use of solitary, and leaving us still at almost twice the national rate.
The real solution is the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement bill (A3080A). It mandates that only violent or similarly dangerous acts can send a person to SHU, that vulnerable people will be kept out of SHU, and that for the relatively small proportion of those now sent to SHU who are truly threats, after a maximum of 15 days they must be placed in units that provide rehabilitative and therapeutic programming to address the causes of their misbehavior, and significant congregate, out-of-cell time to preserve their minds, so that when they return to the general population and to the community they will be less rather than more of a threat to everyone’s safety.
Western New York activists have recently built a replica solitary confinement cell, complete with the usual furnishings and sound recorded in an actual SHU block. The cell will be at colleges, churches and other venues, giving everyone a chance to get a feel for the horror of life in solitary by sitting inside for a few minutes.
On March 13, reformers from Western New York will join others from around the state in Albany, pushing the legislature to pass the HALT bill (A3080A). We should insist that legislators from our region support this vital legislation.
Stephen Hart is the secretary of the Western New York chapter of HALT Solitary, and a member of the board of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture.