New York Poised to Significantly Restrict Use of Solitary Confinement

March 24, 2021

New York is on the verge of significantly restricting its use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. The state Senate approved the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act on March 18 by a 42-21 vote, sending the legislation to Governor Andrew Cuomo.

If Cuomo signs it into law, the HALT Act would overhaul solitary confinement statewide by limiting the amount of time that incarcerated people can be kept in isolation cells. 

Incarcerated people in solitary confinement currently spend about 23 hours a day in a cell, allowed out for one hour for “recreation.” Prisoners spend months at a time in isolation, living in conditions that the United Nations has deemed torture. At the beginning of the March, 1,629 incarcerated people were being held in “special housing unit” isolation cells in New York.

“The harms of solitary … are not substantively different from those of, say, waterboarding or pulling fingernails.”

The HALT Act, which was sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar, would prevent incarcerated people from being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 20 days within a 60-day period. After the maximum 15 days in isolation housing, they would be diverted to rehabilitative units where they would have to be permitted to leave the cell for six hours each day.

The bill, which has a one-year implementation period after becoming law, also bans any period of isolation for people who are younger than 21, older than 55, disabled or pregnant.

On March 21, a small group of demonstrators held a rally outside Cuomo’s mansion to advocate for the legislation, which more than 200 civil rights groups voiced support for a week earlier. 

The governor has not stated whether he will sign the legislation into law. In 2019, his office objected to the cost of an earlier version of the bill. Cuomo and the legislature instead announced an agreement to limit solitary confinement, but the administration has pushed back implementation of those protocols until 2023. The governor’s office did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time.

“This moment is a product of years of fervent advocacy from directly impacted New Yorkers, the majority from Black and Latinx communities, who suffered in solitary confinement; their families and communities; advocates, and others committed towards abolishing the use of torture at prisons throughout New York State,” Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, said in a press release after the bill passed through the Senate. 

“The Legislature sent a powerful message today: New York must halt torture. We urge that Governor Cuomo enact HALT Solitary it into law immediately.” 

“It’s pretty clear that we’d be able to override a veto.”

Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 2010 to 2016, also threw his support behind the bill in a recent Journal News op-ed detailing the mental health toll of solitary confinement.  

“While the harms of solitary do not necessarily require a government actor to physically suffocate or maim a person, they are not substantively different from those of, say, waterboarding or pulling fingernails,” wrote Mendez. His 2011 call to end solitary confinement beyond 15 days was later adopted by the United Nations as part of the Mandela Rules, which relate to minimum standards of treatment for incarcerated people.

Research has shown that prisoners who spent any period of time in solitary confinement are more likely to die in their first year after release from prison than peers who were never placed in isolation housing. They were found to be 78 percent more likely to die by suicide.

As the governor remains silent on the bill, activists continue pushing him to approve the legislation.

Salazar, who chairs the Senate Committee on Women’s Issues, Committee on Crime and Correction, told Filter she wasn’t worried that the governor would quash the bill. Without any action by the governor—veto or approval—bills become law 10 days after gaining approval from the legislature. 

“We haven’t heard that he intends to veto it,” Salazar said. “In the event that the governor were to veto the bill, I think it would be a really unwise decision on his part, given that the bill actually already passed with supermajority support in both houses. So it’s pretty clear that we’d be able to override the veto.”



Photograph via New York State Senate

Daniel Moritz-Rabson

Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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