The Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza is running an exhibit called "Photo Requests from Solitary."
The gist is that incarcerated men and women held in long-term solitary confinement (months, years, cell like a bathroom, maybe an hour outside of it per day) are asked whether they want a picture of something to look at while they’re alone inside. The exhibit includes big blow-up copies of the letters: people ask for things like a picture that shows motion, because everything around them might as well be a still-life, or a picture of being free on the Brooklyn Bridge, dropping shackles into the water below.
Consider those letters and be shaken for a little while. Or remember that the State Legislature, slated to be in session until next week, has a pending bill to restrict segregated confinement and improve alternatives.
It has been a tumultuous year in the state capitol what with new Democratic control of all branches of state government. The budget process this spring resulted in big changes, including to the state’s criminal justice system, like ending cash bail for many offenses beyond the most serious.
Other big issues have been weighed as the end of session approaches, like a rent regulation package agreed to on Tuesday regarding subsidized housing in New York, according to Democratic legislative leaders.
Then there are issues like marijuana legalization, so complex and multifaceted that it doesn’t appear to be ready for completion by the time Albany’s months-long break rolls around, though many legislators agree on the broad strokes.
Finally, there are bills along the lines of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act ("Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement"), which is much more straightforward and also generally supported. But will it make it into the end-of-session mix?
There are some 2,400 individuals in state “special housing units,” according to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s data, a number that advocates say would be higher if you count all forms of solitary. The state’s use of solitary has been reduced in recent years, and advocates hope to codify improvements in law. The centerpiece of the HALT bill is to largely prohibit placing someone in segregated confinement “for more than 15 consecutive days or 20 out of 60 days.”
The reason? From the bill’s justification text: “Studies have consistently found that subjecting people to segregated confinement for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day without meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy can cause deep and permanent psychological, physical, developmental, and social harm.” The point being, solitary isn’t a particularly productive solution even if someone did something heinous.
Correction officers have sometimes talked about the need for solitary to manage conditions in prisons or jails. Clearly, they’re not easy atmospheres. But the bill also authorizes alternative mechanisms for people who need to be separated from the general population, like residential rehabilitation units.
This all seems to have a lot of legislative support. An Assembly version of the bill passed last year, and the State Senate website lists more than enough co-sponsors on the upper-chamber version to pass the bill now.
Yet it hasn’t passed yet, and the clock is ticking. Perhaps senators are overstuffed on criminal justice reform this year and there may not be enough appetite for more, suggests one senate source.
Activists who have been pushing for the HALT bill for years remain hopeful the bill gets swept up in other end-of-session priorities.
“We’re at the tipping edge of the scale,” says Victor Pate, statewide organizer for the #HALTsolitary Campaign. He says the campaigners had heard positive things from co-sponsors in Albany, but who knows what happens behind closed doors.
Pate, 67, called the possibility of delay “poli-tricks."
If the issue isn’t squared away before legislators head home, that’s bad news for all the people behind bars, in forms of solitary, who will stay where they are.
Pate mentioned the recent story of restricted incarceration for Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died last week and was being held in a restrictive housing unit on Rikers Island, where individuals are inside their cells for at least 17 hours. (The city Department of Correction does not use 23-hour punitive segregation for women, according to the agency.)
Polanco’s official cause of death is pending with the city medical examiner.
Pate himself spent time behind bars and in solitary and that’s plenty reason to want a sense of legislative urgency.
He once told me he “began to deteriorate” after his first week in solitary, hallucinating a vision of birds and squirrels.
That conversation was last year, before the HALT bill failed at the end of the 2018 session.