Long-Term Solitary Confinement to End in New York State

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After years of activism and political power shifts, New York state will end long-term solitary confinement in prisons and jails.

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The New York Times reports that Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a bill that will restrict the use of the abusive practice up to 15 consecutive days. The law also bars the use of solitary confinement for people with physical and mental disabilities, pregnant women, minors and other groups of people. While this is a major step forward, the bill will not go into effect until next March.

One of the provisions in the law will focus on the mental health of people placed in solitary confinement. Prisons and jails will be mandated to screen for suicide risk and create new rehabilitation units for prisoners who need to be separated from the general population for more than 15 days.

Black and Latinx people make up roughly 70 percent of people in New York state prisons and represent more than four-fifths of those in solitary confinement, the Times notes.

Across the country, state lawmakers are pushed to end solitary confinement. Research has consistently shown that the practice increases risk for self-harm and suicide, death rates after release and worsened mental illness.

Here is more background on how New York state made progress on restricting the practice, per The Times:

A large campaign to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York kicked off more than eight years ago. But those efforts had long fallen short in Albany.

The state agreed in 2015, following a lawsuit, to changes that included improved living conditions in isolation.

A measure similar to the new law appeared primed to pass in 2019, but ultimately died after union pushback and a threat of veto from Mr. Cuomo, who cited concerns over large potential costs to carry out the changes. (Those projections were later disputed.) Instead, the governor agreed to roll out several less expansive administrative changes to alter the practice.

After Democrats secured a legislative supermajority in last November’s elections, which allowed a veto from the governor to be overridden, their efforts to pass the measure gained traction. Activists in recent weeks staged several rallies outside Mr. Cuomo’s office in Manhattan. The measure passed both chambers with wide support this month, and some lawmakers threatened to push ahead even without Mr. Cuomo’s signature.

It remained unclear on Wednesday night which aspects of the legislation, if any, may face changes.

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Of course, unions for correctional officers are pushing back against the law, saying that it puts their officers at risk. There is no real research that says using solitary confinement actually changes behavior for the better—in fact, research shows the opposite is true.

The most well-known case of solitary confinement was the story of Kalief Browder. He took his own life after being released from Rikers Island, after spending years in jail for a crime he never committed and awaiting a trial that never happened.

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It would be ideal for New York state to end the practice altogether, but these restrictions are a step forward to solitary confinement being abolished eventually.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

DISCUSSION

Since we know that solitary confinement, recognised as a form of torture in the civilized world, can cause permanent mental health problems in as little as a week, this is not much of a ban. It needs to go, period. If guards cannot command respect by virtue of authority and good practice, and feel the need to inflict physical punishment on inmates to do so, then they need to stop being rehabilitation officers and find other employment.