“I’ve been in the S.H.U. (Special Housing Unit) for over 6 1/2 years where I’ve been locked in a cell for 23 to 24 hour[s] a day 7 days a week. In March of 2002 I had a mental breakdown because of being in S.H.U. and I attempted suicide by swallowing 150 pills.
“I was put in a dirty, bloody cell. I was jumped and assaulted by correctional officers, and was left unattended to by the mental health staff. In the course of the 25 days I spent in MHU, I attempted suicide 3 times. …
Right now I don’t know what more to do. I’m writing this letter in hopes that someone will do something … after I’m gone because I simply cannot carry on no more like this[.]
“I hope that my death will bring about some good, if not at least I’ll finally find some peace.”
— Inmate account of his experience in solitary confinement. “Solitary Confinement in New York State,” New York State Bar Association report. January 2013.
State lawmakers are on the cusp of severely limiting a common prison practice that has demonstrated over time to have the opposite effect for which it was intended.
Rather than improve prison discipline and security, solitary confinement has been shown to contribute to violent behavior in prisons, inflame racial tensions, undermine security and make prisons more dangerous for inmates and staff.
Studies show that even short-term confinement in which prisoners are deprived of human contact, programming and therapy can lead to severe and permanent mental health, physical and social problems.
Many prisoners are sent to SHU for non-violent crimes, and when they return to the general population often have more difficulty complying with prison rules — making the punishment a detriment to prison security.
In addition, rather than impose additional costs on the prison system, reducing the use of solitary confinement significantly can actually save taxpayers money.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A2277/S2836) would put severe limits on solitary confinement by limiting the time an inmate can spend in segregated confinement, end the segregated confinement of vulnerable people like those with mental illness and younger inmates, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives.
The Assembly has already passed the bill, and the Senate is expected to pass it on Thursday.
This isn’t the first time the Assembly has approved such a bill. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not offer his support. But this time, due to a shift in the political alignment of the Senate, lawmakers have enough votes to override Cuomo’s veto should it come to that.
We hope it doesn’t get that far.
Solitary confinement should only be used in very limited circumstances and only for severe violations in which there is no other alternative.
After the Senate passes this bill, the governor should do what’s best for the corrections system and those it serves by signing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial said the Senate had passed a version of the bill in the past and the governor had vetoed it. The old bill was actually pulled before the governor could deliver his expected veto.