By Lily Kaplan ’21
Solitary confinement has been used as a common punishment in prisons and jails in New York for decades. Solitary confinement is the practice of placing an inmate in isolation as punishment for offenses that range from getting into a physical altercation to hiding a pack of cigarettes. Many consider solitary confinement to be an inhumane practice that causes severely harmful mental health effects, especially to those with pre-existing conditions, while some believe that its existence is necessary to maintain order in some of New York’s most crowded jails and prisons. In October of 2015, the New York City Board of Corrections unanimously voted to ban solitary confinement for inmates 21 years old and under, and in recent years, many more reforms have been proposed.
Specifically, the “Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” Act, also known as the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, is a bill that aims to limit the time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days or 20 out of 60 days, unless punishable acts are committed while in confinement. The act, if implemented, would improve staff training, enhance the conditions of confinement, and create humane alternatives to solitary confinement. The bill would provide mental health screenings to inmates, create heightened levels of care for inmates in residential rehabilitation units and solitary confinement, prohibit the use of special diets as punishment, and much more.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act, known as Senate Bill S1623 in the New York State Senate, is sponsored by State Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda (D) and co-sponsored by four other Democratic New York State Senators: Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., Brian A. Benjamin, Jamaal T. Bailey and Alessandra Biaggi. State Senator Biaggi represents the 34th district, covering part of the Bronx and Westchester, and was elected to her office in 2018. In a statement she gave to The Iris, she explains why she decided to co-sponsor the bill. "I co-sponsor bill S1623 because New York State cannot continue to permit the systemic torture of human beings. The United Nations dictates that any amount of solitary confinement exceeding 15-days is a form of psychological torture, but our laws exceed that number—this is a direct attack on the physical and mental health of incarcerated New Yorkers. Putting someone in isolation without access to medical treatment, exercise, fresh air, and programming can have life-long consequences on a person's health, making it much harder to thrive in their communities post-incarceration. If we care about restorative justice and transforming our jail system, we must meaningfully limit the cruel practice of solitary confinement and pass the HALT Act immediately.”
Senator Biaggi was not the only HALT supporter who shared their thoughts on the hallmark bill with The Iris; on August 11th, 2020, The Iris local news editor, Lily Kaplan had the opportunity to speak with State Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda (D) over the phone about the bill. State Senator Sepúlveda served as an assembly member for around six and a half years before becoming the State Senator of New York’s 32nd district. He is chairman of the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee and the main sponsor of The HALT Act.
When State Senator Sepúlveda was asked if there were any further reforms that should be added to The HALT Act, he responded, “I think that the reforms that exist in the bill do essentially eradicate solitary confinement. There are some exceptions: something called step down programs in case there is an inmate who has a history of severe violence. Then there are other step down units where they emphasize giving them treatment, giving them therapy—but how we conceptualize solitary confinement—the bill will certainly eliminate it for good.”
The Senator was then asked if he has faced any major obstacles when trying to pass this historic bill. Sepúlveda responded with a chuckle: “The Republican Party, for one.” He continued, mentioning another issue: “the advocates don’t want any modifications [to the bill], but the governor is not going to sign it as it’s written, but luckily [democrats] are still in the majority in the senate where we can continue to push the bill and hopefully get it to the full for a vote. If that were to happen, it would force the governor’s hand and he would have to make a decision, and I think it would be a tough decision for him to vote against it.” The senator continued that “there hasn’t been any compromises” on the bill; he added, “The governor, on one hand, says it’s too much money, and the advocates say that they want it as is. It’s a problem—we have to reach some sort of happy medium.”
When asked if the State Senator believes the bill will pass in the near future, he said, “hope is something you always have to have in this business,” adding that “there was a piece of legislation that I never thought would pass as quickly as it did, and that was the green light bill, which gave undocumented immigrants the right to obtain a drivers license. I didn’t think that was possible, but we got it done; so with a little hope, a little push, and the advocates, we can get this done too.” The Senator also said that although the governor estimates the bill to cost around a billion dollars, he believes it will cost “nowhere near that amount of money, and I think that in the end it will save us money because if you can create the environment that the bill wants to create, you would have less incidents of violence, so it actually makes the facility safer.” Although there is speculation as to whether HALT will pass if it could effectively improve the systems of incarceration, one thing is certain: this bill could drastically change the prison and jail system in New York as we know it.