Editor’s Note: This story, originally published on March 18, was updated after the HALT Solitary Confinement Act was signed into law.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would curtail the use of solitary confinement to 15 days and require therapy and other rehabilitative solutions to be offered to inmates, is a done deal in New York State.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill on April 1, capping off a years-long advocacy effort led by grassroots organizers and formerly incarcerated individuals who described their harrowing experiences in solitary confinement.
The legislation, also known as the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, provides people who are incarcerated with more alternatives to solitary confinement, including less time in isolation and access to group housing facilities such as Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU). Under the legislation, inmates would not be denied treatment or basic needs such as clothing, food, and bedding.
For the state’s most vulnerable incarcerated populations, solitary confinement ends immediately. According to the legislation’s text, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act would prevent the use of solitary confinement for people who are disabled, caring for children, pregnant or up to eight weeks postpartum, under the age of 21, or above the age of 55. The state will also ban solitary confinement ahead of disciplinary hearings, and inmates would be allowed to speak with a lawyer.
Under the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, there are stricter protocols for prison staffers. Before working at a confinement unit, employees would be mandated to complete 37 hours and 30 minutes of training and 21 more hours yearly after being assigned to a facility.
This bill’s passage comes nearly two years after the 2019 death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, an Afro-Latinx transgender woman who was left alone by guards at Rikers while she experienced a fatal health emergency. She was in “restrictive housing,” which is a form of solitary confinement. Melania Brown, Polanco’s sister, has been a leading voice in the effort to eradicate solitary confinement in the state.
“My sister was full of life,” Brown said after the Assembly passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. “She was an angel. She was a healing person. She did not deserve to die that way. I will continue her fight. I will continue her legacy. If I can save one life by helping to pass HALT, that brings me joy.”
The legislation’s lead sponsor, State Senator Julia Salazar of Brooklyn, the chair of the Senate Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Correction, noted that providing inmates with stronger protections is long overdue.
“It is no secret that the use of solitary confinement is inhumane, unethical, and constitutes torture under international law if it extends more than fifteen days,” Salazar said in a written statement. “The passage of HALT in the Senate brings us one step closer to bringing justice to all those who have lost loved ones to the wrongful use of solitary, and the New Yorkers who have been victims of this state-sanctioned torture.”
Out gay Senator Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn also welcomed the legislation’s passage in the upper chamber.
“It is cruel and dehumanizing, and the fact that it has so long been an accepted tool of our incarceral system speaks miles about the fundamental nature of that system,” Brisport said in a written statement. “HALT is a victory for human rights and a step towards a more just future.”
Advocates — including those who experienced solitary confinement — also hailed the legislation’s passage as a step forward in the effort to provide more humane conditions for incarcerated individuals.
“Freedom from torture is the most basic of human rights, and yet every year tens of thousands of New Yorkers are subjected to it in the form of solitary confinement for weeks, months, years, and even decades,” said Jerome Wright, who spent seven years in solitary confinement and is now a statewide organizer with the #HALTSolitary campaign. “Today the New York Senate passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, bringing our state closer to the goal of protecting the human rights of incarcerated people.”
Jovada Senhouse of VOCAL-NY, who spent four months in solitary confinement, also praised the legislation while also stressing the importance of continuing ongoing advocacy to ensure incarcerated individuals are treated with dignity.
“We aren’t stopping,” Senhouse said. “We need Elder Parole [and the] Fair and Timely Parole [Act] to restore the right to vote for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and to provide a path for people to challenge wrongful convictions.”
Jose Saldana, the director of the Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, described the legislation as a positive step for justice.
“Thousands of New Yorkers have paid for this bill to become the law, some with their lives, many others with their mental, emotional and spiritual health,” Saldana said.
In March, New York City’s Board of Correction (BOC) released a proposal to end solitary confinement by November and replace it with a Risk Management Accountability Plan, allowing inmates 10 hours or more outside of a cell, five hours of “daily programming,” as well as access to case management services, including mental healthcare and a support team.
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