By Jack Denton. Excerpted from Gothamist.
APRIL 13 — Yesterday morning in Albany’s Legislative Office Building, Alecia Barraza’s voice cracked as she described her 21-year-old son’s mental decline and eventual suicide during his isolation in solitary confinement at Fishkill Correctional Facility in Dutchess County.
“We live with this tragedy every day,” Barraza said of the death of her son, Benjamin Van Zandt. “Reform is needed now! Not one more family should have to endure this pain.”
A bill that would radically alter solitary confinement in New York, called the Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, is gaining traction in Albany. It would create substantive alternatives to solitary confinement, place strict limitations on the use and permitted durations of confinement, and improve due process protections for prisoners who face solitary.
Yesterday, The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (CAIC) brought over 200 people from all over the state to Albany to rally and lobby the legislature to pass the HALT act, which now has 59 co-sponsors in the state legislature. Advocates also built a model solitary confinement cell in the legislative chambers that was covered with poetry written by inmates currently serving time in solitary confinement.
The push for solitary reform is part of a growing public discomfort — especially in New York — with the way our criminal justice system currently operates, especially its over-reliance on solitary confinement.
Despite the approval of a New York State settlement that requires incremental changes, the New York State prison system’s use of solitary confinement is one of the most egregious in the nation. Its prisons generally hold 3,700 people in isolation, more than 7% of the entire prison population. The average rate of solitary confinement nationally is 4.4%, and as low as 2% in states such as Colorado and Washington.
These people are held a tiny cell in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for 22 to 24 hours a day, often for months or years, sometimes decades. The conditions of isolation often lead to serious psychological harm; over 40% of suicides in New York prisons in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary, despite the fact that they only represent 7% of the inmate population.
“I did two years in the solitary confinement. It really affected me. Gave me flashbacks,” said Tony Simon, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, who served over 30 years in prison.
“One time I was visiting my niece’s house, and I got on the elevator, and had a terrible panic attack. I felt like I was back in solitary. It’s like being in a coffin.”
Click here to read the full article about CAIC’s Advocacy Day on Gothamist.