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Activists Go On Hunger Strike Demanding Solitary Confinement Reform In Albany

Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining NY
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Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Ossining NY JB Nicholas / Gothamist

During her six years in prison, Jovada Senhouse was sent to solitary confinement three times. Twice, she was caught fighting and sentenced to 30 days in solitary. The day she was released from her second solitary stint, Senhouse was caught kissing her girlfriend in the prison gym. For that, she was sentenced to 90 days in solitary.

“You got a jail full of women,” she explained to Gothamist. “I was a pretty girl. I had a lot of girls.”

Today, Senhouse, an organizer with Brooklyn-based advocacy group VOCAL-NY, is going on hunger strike to demand an end to long-term solitary confinement. She’s joined by 17 other advocates, some of whom have also experienced solitary. Together, they’re demanding that state lawmakers bring the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (S.1623/A.2500) to the floor for a vote. The bill will limit stints in solitary confinement, in which people are confined to their cells for at least 23 hours each day, to 15 consecutive days. It would also create alternatives for those who need to be separated for longer periods of time.

New York’s 54 prisons currently hold 2,402 adults in their Special Housing Units (SHU), dedicated cellblocks in which people are locked 23 to 24 hours each day. That’s not the only form of isolation. There’s also keeplock, in which a person is locked in their cell (as opposed to a designated isolation unit) for 23 hours each day. Advocates estimate that at least another thousand people are in keeplock based on past prison monitoring visits.

Regardless of the name, advocates, including those who have spent time in isolation, say that solitary wreaks havoc on their mental well-being, even decades later. Senhouse recalled contemplating suicide during her first week in isolation; what stopped her was knowing how much pain her death would bring her mother and Senhouse’s one-year-old daughter.

Victor Pate is now the statewide organizer for New York's Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, which has been organizing for years to pass HALT. But in 1975, he was a 23-year-old entering the state’s infamous Attica prison. Shortly after his arrival, he was placed in solitary for two weeks. Why? He had too many bedsheets in his cell.

Prison rules dictate that people in solitary be given one hour out of cell, usually in an outdoor recreation cage. But it was winter and the recreation cage was filled with snow. Most days Pate opted to stay in his cell. He also recalled that there were at least five meals in which he was not given food. When he was allowed to rejoin other men after two weeks, he found himself unable to hold conversations or have normal human interactions.

Hunger strikers plan to consume only liquids, a tactic allowing them to extend the length of their protest. This same type of hunger strike was utilized in California’s 60-day mass prison hunger strikes in 2013 which, along with a class-action lawsuit, resulted in sweeping changes to the state’s policies around solitary confinement. In New York City, the Board of Correction passed a rule in 2015 limiting solitary stints to 30 consecutive days; if they commit a serious assault on staff, they can be isolated for 60 days.

Jason Conwall, spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo, pointed to the portion of the governor's 2019 Justice Agenda that directed the state's Department of Corrections to speed up solitary confinement by building more rehabilitation housing, expanding therapeutic programming, and limiting the length of time that people spend in separation.

"We of course remain engaged with the legislature on any additional reforms that can be operationally and fiscally implemented," Conwall added.

However, Pate and other advocates with CAIC charge that the governor’s proposal does not go far enough, allowing people to be isolated for minor rules violations and excluding keeplock from these time limits.

The Assembly version of HALT, which has 79 co-sponsors and passed in previous years, is currently in committee. The Senate version, which has 33 co-sponsors did not pass in previous years, is on the floor calendar, meaning that senators can bring the bill to a vote.

That’s what hunger strikers are pressing. “We are doing this strike to bring attention and protest the inactivity of the legislature,” said Pate. “People are still suffering from the effects of solitary confinement.”

Senhouse agrees. “I’m thinking of Layleen Polanco, the trans woman who died at Rikers [while in a form of isolation]. I’m fighting for her,” she said. “We’re fighting so no one else can go through what I went through.”

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