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Editorial: Injustice behind bars

New York State has taken steps to cut down on the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons. The evidence shows the effort is not working and the state needs to do better.

The 2015 settlement of a lawsuit between the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State was supposed to restrict the use of solitary as a disciplinary measure. It has not worked out that way. The NYCLU issued a report in late October stating that prison officials used some form of solitary 38,249 times in 2018, up from 37,600 in 2015.

The United Nations classifies the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture. Its overuse can have drastic consequences, including rapid physical and mental deterioration that can leave individuals unable to function when they finish serving their time. In addition to the humane argument for not doing that, there is an economic one. Individuals who come out of prison unable to function will be unlikely to find or keep a job, making them a burden on society.

The NYCLU report did show a reduction in the instances of inmates being placed in special housing units, known as SHU sanctions, which is the most restrictive form of solitary. That figure was 10,466 in 2018, down from 12,912 in 2015.

That was more than offset by an increase in the use of “keeplock,” a less restrictive form of isolation in which prisoners are kept in their cells, within the general prison population, for 23 hours a day, but can keep access to their personal property and phone calls to family members. The number of keeplock sanctions rose from 24,688 to 27,783, a 12.5% increase.

The NYCLU endorses enactment of a law to sharply curtail the use of solitary, known as the HALT Act, put forward by a group called Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinment. The HALT legislation had a chance for passage in the Democratic-controlled Legislature last spring, but did not win support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The governor and party leaders agreed instead to propose new regulations through the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The DOCCS rules, which began taking effect this month, involve a more gradual approach than the HALT Act. Under the DOCCS regulations, an inmate could be kept in SHU confinement for a maximum of 30 days at a time, starting in October 2022, with phased-in decreases before then. Pregnant women and people with disabilities would be spared.

The HALT Act would restrict use of solitary to 15 consecutive days. It would apply to all forms of the punishment, including “keeplock,” and would prohibit the use of solitary for individuals 18 to 21, 55 or older, or with a diagnosed mental health challenge.

Progressives and other activists committed to clamping down on the use of solitary will make a push early in the 2020 legislative session in Albany for new consideration of the HALT Act.

There is pushback against the bill, including by some local officials concerned about the costs of making changes to their jails to accommodate new arrangements.

More importantly, corrections officials are worried about losing a disciplinary tool that helps them maintain order in jails and prisons. Law enforcement unions, including the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, have lobbied against the HALT Act, arguing for more gradual reforms.

While some of the union officials may exaggerate the impact of making any changes, their concerns should not be dismissed. If the HALT Act’s provisions – which would take effect within one year of the law being signed – represent a jolt to the penal system that goes too far or happens too fast, there’s no reason lawmakers could not work out a compromise bill that all sides can live with. That’s what negotiations are for.

Doing prison time is not meant to be a vacation, but neither does it mean relinquishing all rights as a human being. The State of New York is party to a form of torture if it cannot curtail the use of solitary confinement.

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