New York prison officials continue to hold hundreds of people in solitary confinement for long stretches of time, despite a new state law banning the practice beyond 15 consecutive days, according to newly published state data.
The HALT Solitary Act, signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021, went into effect in March. It prohibited the placement of any incarcerated person in solitary confinement, known as “segregated confinement,” for more than 15 days in a row, and more than 20 nonconsecutive days in a 60-day period.
Yet the practice remains widespread in New York prisons, according to newly released data from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which operates the vast state prison system. The latest statistics show that as of Aug. 1, 228 people were held for longer than 15 days, including 50 locked in for between 31 and 90 days. Of all 490 people held in the solitary units known as segregated housing, the average length of stay was 16.1 days. Once inside, incarcerated people are required to have four hours out of their cell daily — two for recreation, and two for therapeutic programming.
Solitary confinement is widely considered a humanitarian violation, with the United Nations likening it to torture and criminal justice reform advocates arguing that it is harmfully and unjustifiably used to punish those who supposedly violate prison rules.
And despite the provision in the law against holding people for more than 20 nonconsecutive days in a two-month period, state data shows that 576 people were nonetheless locked in for such stretches.
DOCCS did not directly respond to questions about the apparent violation of the law. By way of explanation, it referenced “transfers” of incarcerated people held in solitary confinement, known as segregated housing units, to other units: “DOCCS’ Central Office continuously monitors the status of incarcerated individuals housed in SHU cells and makes every effort to effect transfers as expeditiously as possible. Timely transfer referrals are submitted and transfers occur when appropriate space is available.”
The statement also said that prison officials have received training on compliance with the law, and in accordance with its provisions incarcerated people held in SHU cells get four hours of out-of-cell programs, including recreation, every day. They also get access to two tablets, one of which can be used to make phone calls.
The state’s compliance with the law has faltered since May. At that time, state data showed that only two people were held in segregated confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.
Jerome Wright, co-director of the HALT Solitary Campaign that lobbied for the law, was in solitary confinement for nearly eight of the 30 years he spent incarcerated in prisons throughout New York for crimes he committed in the Bronx in the 1970s. He said activists will continue to push the state to abide by the HALT Act.
Solitary confinement “has been used not just to torture, but to dehumanize people and break people down,” he said.
Wright said that such conditions have permanent effects on people’s well-being. “People don’t go into solitary and come out better, they come out bitter. They don't go into solitary and deal with their issues, their issues get worse. They don't go to solitary and get any help with their situation,” he said. “My life is forever changed in a negative way, for no reason.”
State Sen. Julia Salazar, a sponsor of the bill that banned solitary confinement, said in a statement that the data from DOCCS “violates both the spirit and the letter of the law.”
“Advocates and experts worked for years to finally pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act with the purpose of ending the inhumane practice of long-term solitary confinement making jails and prisons safer for everyone through treatment and programming,” she said. “We will continue to work to ensure that prisons become fully compliant with the law.”
Advocates seeking to end solitary confinement say the HALT Act has had results in at least rolling back the practice. As recently as 2015, 13,500 incarcerated people in New York were sentenced to the solitary housing units each year. That number has fallen dramatically.
The Rikers Island jail complex, which houses those charged with crimes in New York City, is also subject to the HALT Act. Family members and former detainees have told Gothamist that solitary confinement persists there, too.