New York Abolished Long-Term Solitary. Will Guards Get With the Program?

May 6, 2021

On April 1, after eight years of a determined grassroots campaign, the HALT Act (Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement) was signed into law in New York State. The new law, which takes effect in one year, abolishes long-term solitary confinement in New York state’s jails and prisons.

Although solitary confinement goes by myriad names—the Box, the Hole, the Shu, Keeplock, Administrative Segregation—they all mean essentially the same thing: confinement to a cell for 23 hours a day, for days, months and in some cases, decades on end. Food trays are passed through a slot in the cell door. The human interaction so essential to our mental health and wellbeing is almost entirely removed.

Often referred to as the “jail within jail,” solitary confinement is so grueling that it is considered by the United Nations to be torture after 15 days. With the passage of the HALT Act, which caps the use of solitary at 15 days, relief is in sight for the estimated 2,600 people, primarily Black and Hispanic, existing inside these cells in New York. Considering that there is little public and political sympathy for incarcerated people, the new law is a significant human rights victory—albeit an incremental one that falls far short of dismantling the carceral system.

The implication that solitary houses the “worst of the worst” strains credulity.

But not everyone is celebrating. Unsurprisingly, corrections officers have fiercely contested the Act, arguing that solitary confinement is a necessary tool to promote safety in prisons and jails. Benny Boscio, president of New York City’s Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said in a statement: “The Governor should put safety first and refuse to sign this reckless piece of legislation that is only going to further jeopardize the lives of our essential Correction Officers.” Boscio and his corrections brethren portray the purpose of these cells as housing the most dangerous people, for whom solitary confinement is the only answer.

That depiction is highly questionable. Among the activists campaigning to pass the HALT Act were people who are themselves survivors of solitary. Many describe minor infractions as the reason for their being placed there—possession of too many postage stamps, disobeying orders, walking out of a housing unit wearing a hat, or other simple rules violations. The implication that solitary houses the “worst of the worst” strains credulity. Fortunately, the HALT Act, besides limiting the duration of solitary, completely prohibits it as punishment for nonviolent infractions.

It is nonetheless true that some incarcerated people can pose a safety risk to others. The HALT Act addresses this population with provisions for Residential Rehabilitation Units, which will provide programs and therapy to address underlying issues, with a minimum of six hours of out-of-cell time. This strategy makes sense, when studies indicate that isolation does not curb violence, but actually increases it.


Colorado’s Earlier Example

The strategy has also proven effective in Colorado, the first state to eliminate solitary in its prisons. Rather than continuing to rail against the HALT Act now that it has become law, New York’s disgruntled guards might instead look to Colorado, where similar reforms have benefited everyone—including prison staff.

In 2017, Colorado largely replaced solitary in its state prison system, limiting it to 15 days, in a model similar to the HALT Act. Unlike New York, this did not come about legislatively, but was the result of a state initiative spearheaded by Rick Raemisch, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Raemisch famously placed himself inside a solitary confinement cell for a night and asked, “My God, what are we doing to people?”

In 2018, along with several other members of Social Workers & Allies Against Solitary Confinement, I had an opportunity to visit several Colorado prisons. We toured the prisons with Raemisch, who said that ending solitary was a years-long process and not a simple matter, as difficult behavior still needed to be addressed. But Colorado chose to address it differently, using a two-pronged approach of preventing violence in the first place, and responding to it differently when it occurred.

After existing in a cell the size of a parking space for two-and-a-half decades, it was over.

As we walked through the halls, Raemisch invited us to peer around corners and speak to anyone we pleased. Inside a cellblock, I chatted with “Jimmy,” a tattooed 50-ish white man who had spent 25 years in solitary.

In a quivering voice, he told me that one morning, several years earlier, his cell door was opened and the warden stepped in and told him he was coming out. After existing in a cell the size of a parking space for two-and-a-half decades, it was over.

The warden offered him a “step-down” program that would allow for increased out-of-cell time, coupled with mental health support to address violent impulses. Raemisch told us that increased mental health treatment was a huge factor in transitioning away from solitary. And it worked for Jimmy. Since his liberation, he has not been involved in a single incident, despite a prior history of violence. And in the years since Colorado began emptying out its solitary cells, contrary to expectations otherwise, violence has only decreased.

In the effort to diffuse violence before it erupted, novel interventions were developed—softly colored “time-out” rooms, and a range of programs to battle boredom and offer mental stimulation. As part of our tour, we stepped into a time-out room—a comfortable space with a rocking chair and a headphone for music. The officer in charge told us that people would emerge from these rooms calmer. We sat in on a variety of programs and classes—outdoor basketball, substance use disorder recovery programs, arts and crafts, music, yoga, and vocational training aimed at prepping people for a successful transition to life on the outside. At the women’s prison, vocational opportunities included cosmetology classes, obedience training for dogs, welding and type-setting, to name just a few.

It was obvious that Colorado’s commitment to reform was wholehearted, and a resulting culture change was palpable. Walking through the halls, the visible antagonism that typically defines the prisoner/guard relationship was absent. There seemed to be a calmness that I’d never experienced at Rikers Island; Dr. Ali Winters, a member of our team with experience of working at Tennessee Prison for Women, felt the same.

But a third member of our entourage was growing suspicious. Victor Pate served as the campaign organizer for the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement and is on the Advisory Board of Social Workers & Allies Against Solitary Confinement. His advocacy work was born out of his own solitary survival in a New York State Prison. His offense? Possession of too many bed sheets. His punishment? 90 days in “the hole.”

Now, Pate needed to see for himself if these reforms could be trusted. He discreetly pulled someone aside who’d just come out of a recovery group, and asked him: “Look, I’ve been exactly where you are and I’ve never seen anything like this. I want the unvarnished truth—is this for real or is this a big show?”

Pate said the man shook his head and replied, “Man, this is the real deal—if they’d had therapy and these programs when I was locked up before, I never would have been back.”

For New York, the HALT Act is now a legislative mandate and correctional staff is faced with a choice.

The changes that incarcerated people in Colorado were endorsing may have been introduced by senior officials, but they had been implemented by the staff, and rested on corrections officers’ willingness to embrace such a non-traditional model. One officer who had accompanied us through the prisons, Major Brian Scott, acknowledged that he was once a hard-nosed CO. “I never thought these changes would work,” he admitted. And in fact, Raemisch told us there was an initial exodus of officers who balked at change. But Scott wasn’t one of them. “I hung in, and I’m glad I did. Now I’m a part of something so much better. It’s better to be helping people than fighting them all the time. In some ways, it turned out to be my own rehabilitation.”

While Colorado’s initiative is laudable, its implementation is likely less glowing than what visitors might see on a two-day guided tour. Still, it represents an unprecedented attempt to confront a legally sanctioned, yet torturous practice in a US prison system. Because it developed internally, it has the advantage of staff acceptance and “ownership.” But since these reforms were never codified into law, it is also vulnerable to the whims of future prison administrations.

For New York, the HALT Act is now a legislative mandate and correctional staff is faced with a choice. They can continue to rail against it. They can seek loopholes in the law, make minor tweaks to solitary confinement, slap another name on it, and return to business as usual. But they could also approach it with an open mind and give it a chance. Imperfect and just a starting point these reforms may be. But wouldn’t it be good to be part of something better?



Photograph by vicki watkins via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Mary Buser

Mary Buser, LCSW, is a former assistant chief of mental health on Rikers Island, and author of the award-winning book, Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail. She is a member of Social Workers & Allies against Solitary Confinement. She lives in Brooklyn.

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