By Stephen Hart
Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, the New York State Legislature may shut down as soon as it passes the budget, instead of in late June. A critical issue for it to address before leaving Albany is solitary confinement.
Solitary is a humanitarian crisis. About 40,000 times a year, people incarcerated in New York prisons are condemned to isolation, either in special housing units or in their own cells (“keeplock”), often for months or years, and in the majority of cases for nonviolent violations of prison rules or behavior arising from mental illness rather than for acts of violence.
Suicide attempts are 12 times more likely in SHU than in the general prison population, and self-harm of other kinds is seven times as likely. Humans are social; we do badly when deprived of social interactions and bonds. The suffering experienced in isolation is as great as from physical torture.
A majority of both senators and Assembly members are co-sponsors of a comprehensive reform initiative, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (A2500/S1623). All that is needed is for a vote to be taken and the governor to sign. With a legislative consensus already in place, it would be unconscionable to delay reform for another year.
The COVID-19 epidemic only strengthens the need for reform. As the prisons now operate, the minute prisoners show flu-like symptoms, or maybe even colds, they are likely to be isolated in solitary confinement cells, whether or not they actually have COVID-19. These people will be out of sight and receive even less than the low standard of care normally delivered in prison, in addition to experiencing psychological harm.
Many will die who could have survived with appropriate treatment. And their isolation won’t stop the virus from sweeping through the prisons, which crowd people together, treat hand sanitizer as contraband, and have poor sanitary conditions.
Solitary also challenges our commitment to community, which is being tested by the epidemic. Already we see breakdowns in solidarity, shown by price-gouging and fights over toilet paper. The “social distancing” being used to try to reduce the impact of COVID-19 means that most of us will be living with a diminished set of social contacts, and with fear in our hearts.
While social distancing and even self-quarantine are radically different from being in solitary confinement, the experience can help us imagine what life would be like with very limited mobility, no caring touch, no communal worship or recreation and no exchanges of inner feelings. Given the current epidemic, the time to stop the abuse of solitary confinement is now.
Stephen Hart is secretary of the WNY chapter of #HALTsolitary, a statewide organization.