The New York legislature has passed a bill limiting the state prison system's use of solitary confinement.
The New York Senate passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act today by a vote of 42–21, sending it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has opposed the legislation in previous years.
The bill, S2836, limits the use of solitary confinement for all incarcerated people to 15 days, with exceptions for serious disciplinary infractions. This would largely bring the state in line with the United Nations' Nelson Mandela Rules for the treatment of prisoners, which defines solitary confinement for more than 15 days as torture.
"We remember the names Layleen Polanco, Kalief Browder, and Benjamin van Zandt, and the countless others whose lives have either been taken or destroyed by solitary confinement," state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D–Yonkers) said in a press release. "Prolonged segregated confinement can cause permanent harms and does not properly address the root causes that lead to the punishment."
The HALT Act would also ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, for people under the age of 22 or older than 54, and for prisoners with certain disabilities. Solitary confinement would also be prohibited for those diagnosed with a serious mental illness. They would be sent to a residential rehabilitation unit instead.
Criminal justice reformers and civil libertarians have been trying for years to curb solitary confinement in New York, which currently has no limits on how long an incarcerated person can be held in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day.
In a press statement, New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman applauded the legislature for "ending the torture that is long-term solitary confinement." Noting that the practice "causes severe mental and physical trauma that can lead to irreparable harm," Lieberman pointed out that tens of thousands of New Yorkers have been "locked in solitary each year for months, years, and even decades."
The number of people held in solitary confinement on any given day across U.S. prisons and jails has been declining over the past decade as states have slowly limited the practice. Colorado abolished it almost entirely.
The daily number sat around 60,000 people, according to a longitudinal study published in 2018. Although the use of solitary confinement has waned, the report found 4,000 people placed in solitary who were identified by their jurisdiction as seriously mentally ill. It also found 2,000 inmates who had been in solitary for six or more years.
The use of solitary confinement spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic as prison administrators tried to use it to slow the spread of the virus through facilities.
Cuomo threatened to veto the HALT Act two years ago over its projected costs, leading Democrats to pull the bill in exchange for a series of administrative reforms. Those promised reforms never materialized.
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, a union of state prison guards, opposes the legislation. According to WMHT, Cuomo hasn't publicly commented on the bill in more than a year.