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'I Call Them Torture Chambers': As Time Runs Out In Albany, Activists Demand Solitary Confinement Reform

Nathylin Flowers marches with protesters against solitary confinement at New York state correctional facilities, during a rally to urge New York state legislators to pass reform legislation at the state Capitol, in Albany on Wednesday
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Nathylin Flowers marches with protesters against solitary confinement at New York state correctional facilities, during a rally to urge New York state legislators to pass reform legislation at the state Capitol, in Albany on Wednesday Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock


Anthony Dixon says he hasn't eaten solid food in eight days because he is part of an ongoing hunger strike by around 40 prison reform advocates to urge the state legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to pass and sign a bill that limits the use of solitary confinement in New York.

"It doesn't correct people, it punishes them," Dixon, who said he spent 32 years in New York prisons, two of them in a form of solitary confinement, told Gothamist. "I call them torture chambers. I saw individuals take their lives, I saw individuals go insane...It's as if we are putting people inside an oven and seeing how far they can go before they're well done."

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act limits the amount of time an incarcerated New Yorker can spend in solitary confinement, in which people are confined to their cells for at least 23 hours each day, to 15 consecutive days (a standard set by the United Nations). For those who need to be separated for longer periods of time, the bill requires them to be transferred to residential rehabilitation units with "therapy, treatment, and rehabilitative programming."

The bill has the support from majorities of both the Senate and the Assembly, and while Governor Cuomo has said he supports solitary reform, he has implied that the current bill would be too costly to implement.

On WAMC this morning, the governor suggested it would cost municipalities a billion dollars to construct new jails with residential rehabilitation units.

"We need to protect people. Yes, we have to run the prison system and we have to run the jail system but it has to be humane and there's no doubt that there are reforms that have to be made," Cuomo said. "On the other hand there was a theory of spending statewide about a billion dollars in building new jails. We don't have the billion dollars and we'd have to figure out where to get the billion dollars. We'd have to send out a bill to the local governments, which would be the unfunded mandate of all time, or we'd have to renegotiate a budget and frankly I don't want to build a billion dollars' worth of new jails."

Proponents of the bill, which is sponsored by Bronx State Senator Luis Sepulveda and Queens Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubrey, say it could actually save the state money because it would drastically reduce the number of people held in solitary confinement, and that the concern over municipalities spending money on new facilities is unfounded because the bill explicitly exempts jails with 500 or fewer inmates from those requirements.

New York’s 54 prisons currently hold 2,402 adults in dedicated cellblocks in which people are locked 23 to 24 hours each day, and it is estimated that another thousand are held in a form of solitary confinement in their own cells called "keeplock."

“I believe we have a fundamental difference with his numbers,” Sepulveda told the NY Law Journal on Tuesday. “I don’t believe it’s the number he’s saying because if you take into account the fact that we have less people in solitary confinement, costs are going to go down.”

A spokesperson for Senator Sepulveda said that as of Thursday afternoon, "we are working really hard to bring this bill to a vote."

A member of Assemblymember Aubry's office added, "They're working on getting it to a vote...They're getting the language together to discuss it. We know what the governor's doing."

Though technically the legislative session ended on Wednesday, lawmakers are expected to stay in Albany through Friday to finish up the people's business.

Dixon, who is the director of communication for the Parole Preparation Project, called Cuomo's concerns about funding "a red herring," and said that there were plenty of existing prison facilities that could be converted to create rehab units.

"Enough is enough, governor. Why can't he govern us out of a system of darkness and into the light of day, where people are treated humanely while they are under his care?"

[UPDATE / 3:10 p.m.]

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