By Paul Grondahl. Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union.
The daylong effort will include family members of inmates kept for months and years in solitary, which advocates consider cruel and unusual punishment. Studies have found the practice of extended punitive isolation can contribute to depression, mental illness and suicide attempts.
The group calls itself New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, and they’re attempting to advance a bill introduced by Democrats in the Senate and Assembly that would create alternative housing for prisoners who have been in solitary longer than 15 days — a limit recommended by a United Nations report on torture. Their legislative visits will focus on Republican lawmakers.
Currently, there are about 3,800 inmates held in solitary confinement in state prisons and hundreds more in solitary in county jails around the state each day. In state prisons, they are fed through door slots in their cells and for one hour in each 24-hour cycle, a door leading to a caged-in balcony is unlocked so they can get fresh air.
“Solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive,” said Scott Paltrowitz, associate director of the prisoner visiting project of the Correctional Association of New York. “We believe this bill creates more-effective alternatives that will make prisons and our communities safer.”
Corrections officials have long defended the use of using solitary confinement as an effective tool to control prisoners and improve safety for correction officers.
The bill would restrict how solitary confinement can be used and eliminate nonviolent conduct such as refusing to obey an order or substance abuse infractions. It would reserve solitary for physical violence, escape attempts and other serious crimes. The bill also would prohibit vulnerable prisoners such as the elderly and mentally ill from being placed in solitary confinement.
In addition, a component of the legislation would require periodic reporting from an outside entity.
“It’s very difficult now to get any information from the state on who’s in solitary and how long they’ve been there,” Paltrowitz said. “We want to bring transparency and accountability to the process.”
The lobbying day follows a February victory by prisoner advocates who were successful in winning a legal settlement that limits the state’s use of solitary confinement among inmates who are developmentally disabled, younger than 18 or pregnant.