New York is poised to limit solitary confinement in prisons and jails to 15 consecutive days

The New York Senate passed a bill Thursday limiting the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary settings and ban it altogether for some populations....

Posted: Mar 19, 2021 12:20 PM

The New York Senate passed a bill Thursday limiting the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary settings and ban it altogether for some populations.

The bill specifically would put a 15-day limit on solitary confinement, making New York one of the first states to follow rules adopted by the United Nations known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, according to the New York Civil Liberty Union (NYCLU).

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, which passed 42-21, would prevent inmates from being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, or 20 days total in any 60-day period. It also would ban solitary for those with mental or physical disabilities, pregnant women, or those in the first eight weeks of post-partum recovery, and inmates under 21 or older than 55.

Known as the HALT Act, the bill also requires all inmates in solitary be offered at least four hours of recreation outside of their cells and one hour of outdoor time.

While New York law outlines some timelines for how often solitary confinement should be reviewed, there is currently no limit to how long someone can stay there.

Eighteen states have enacted statutes that limit or ban solitary confinement, while some states have limited its use through policy, administrative code or court rulings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The UN's Mandela Rules define segregated confinement for more than 15 days as torture.

Besides the restrictions on solitary confinement, the bill also requires that solitary be used for only "serious conduct" such as risk of "imminent serious physical injury." Other measures to protect inmate well-being are also in the bill, like the use of residential rehabilitation units, which comes with supportive services and requires more recreational time.

Already approved by the state House, the bill will now go to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's desk, but it is unclear if he plans to sign it. CNN has reached out to his office.

Similar bill passed in 2019

In 2019, a similar bill was passed in both the state's House and Senate, but Cuomo did not sign it. Instead, his office and legislators negotiated a deal to make some of the changes in the bill administratively instead of through state law.

Negotiated terms included a 30-day cap for solitary confinement, a solitary ban for vulnerable populations like teenagers and pregnant women, and extended use of "specialized units" to transition inmates back to the general population, according to a release from Cuomo's office.

While some of the policies in the 2019 HALT Act were similar to the new bill, some legislators say that there is no legal backing in the 2019 administrative changes and it is ultimately left to the corrections officers alone to enforce.

Even if Cuomo vetoes the bill, there is a strong possibility that the Democratic-controlled Legislature could override his veto using its supermajority. Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in the state House and Senate, the amount needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, the Senate deputy majority leader, said he hopes Cuomo signs the bill, but is prepared to use the Democratic supermajority. The bill would go into effect a year after becoming law.

Opposition to the bill

The bill was opposed by the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association (COBA), the union for corrections staff in the New York City Department of Correction. The union argued that restrictiing the use of solitary confinement would lead to increases in violent attacks against correctional officers.

"The Governor should put safety first and refuse to sign this reckless piece of legislation that is only going to further jeopardize the lives of our essential Correction Officers," said Benny Boscio, the union's president, in a statement on COBA's Facebook page.

Some senators strongly opposed the bill, also saying that it would put the safety of correctional officers and inmates at risk.

Republican Sen. Frederick J. Akshar II said he agreed that the state should be trying to rehabilitate prisoners as well as reduce recidivism and have a strong reentry program for inmates completing their terms.

"But we have a responsibility in this body to protect and ensure the safety and security of the facility, of every inmate that finds themselves incarcerated, and equally as important, we have a responsibility as a body to ensure that we are protecting the hardworking men and women that work in these facilities," Akshar said.

State Sen. Julie Salazar, a key sponsor of the bill, countered this narrative by citing several examples from across the country where a reduction in solitary confinement led to less violence. She said that studies have shown that "the use of solitary confinement has been consistent with dramatic decreases in violence in correctional facilities."

Another issue raised by Senate Republicans is the potential costs of the bill, as $100 million is proposed in this year's state budget to support its first year as law. But Salazar said that while there might be some upfront costs, she said some estimates show that the act would save money over the long term.

One analysis from the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank in Buffalo, says it could save the state and local municipalities around $132 million per year.

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman celebrated the bill's passing in a statement and encouraged Cuomo to sign it.

"New Yorkers elected leaders to the Legislature this year with a clear mandate to dismantle structures of systemic racism and end mass incarceration," she said. "By passing the HALT Act in both chambers, Albany lawmakers have shown that they are listening and taking action."

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