In a move to lessen what experts have deemed the “cruel and unusual punishment” of solitary confinement—which also has been likened to torture—a new bill in New York state guarantees that those sent to segregated units will have access to a phone within 24 hours of isolation, and that they can have contact with the outside world via phone once per week.
The New York State Senate on Wednesday approved legislation guaranteeing that those incarcerated in state prisons can make a phone call within 24 hours of being sent to “the hole,” “the box” “SHU,” or to a mental health treatment unit. It also grants those in these segregated areas one phone call per week while in solitary, usually to be placed to family, friends or lawyers. The bill passed the lower house in February.
“When an incarcerated person is admitted into a segregated housing unit, the barriers to rehabilitative programming and successful reentry become even greater,” Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Queens), who supported the bill, told the New York Daily News. “For those who have been able to stay in contact with family throughout their sentence, the ability to make a phone call makes a huge difference. We should strengthen familial ties instead of adding hurdles.”
Not only were prisoners themselves suffering terribly under previous no-contact rules (humans are innately social beings who actually deteriorate mentally and physically when deprived of meaningful human connection), but family members were also deprived of information on their loved ones’ whereabouts or condition when they were placed in these segregated areas.
And yet, though a step in the right direction, prison reform advocates are saying it’s not enough.
“As the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NYCAIC) and directly impacted people have been saying for years, solitary confinement is torture,” Katie Schaffer, New York Statewide Organizer, JustLeadershipUSA, said to The Root. “This recently passed legislation acknowledges the harm done by denying people regular contact with their families, loved ones, and legal counsel. But access to a weekly phone call is not enough. New York State must pass the HALT Act to end the torture of prolonged isolation and take meaningful steps to respect the dignity and humanity of incarcerated people.”
HALT, or the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Luis Sepulveda (D-Bronx) and effectively bans prisons from placing people away from others for extended periods of time.
As NYCAIC’s website notes:
Solitary has been shown to be unsafe and ineffective as well as inhumane. Despite these facts, New York utilizes isolated confinement at rates well above the national average, with some 4,000 people in isolation in state prisons, and hundreds more in local jails. Although the UN has said that solitary confinement beyond 14 days can amount to torture, many individuals in New York remain in isolation for months, years, or even decades.
HALT passed the lower house (Assembly) in New York last year, but the bill was not brought to the floor for a vote before the end of session in late June.
Activists are hoping to pass it in the Senate this term.