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October 28, 2019

NEW YORK - The New York Civil Liberties Union released today a new report using never before released data showing how commonly solitary confinement is used to punish people in New York State prisons. The analysis reveals that the HALT Act would eliminate long-term solitary confinement for thousands of people. The proposed regulations from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) do not adequately restrict the length of solitary sentences and fail to protect some of the most vulnerable people from the harms of long-term isolation.

Trapped Inside: The Past, Present, and Future of Solitary Confinement in New York reveals exclusive data that the NYCLU obtained through a settlement in Peoples v. Annucci, a lawsuit against DOCCS which led to broad changes in disciplinary segregation. After analyzing the data of solitary confinement in New York State prisons, the NYCLU found:

  • In 2018, there were 40,000 solitary confinement sanctions in New York State prisons, which holds about 45,000 people annually. One-quarter of solitary sentences were SHU (special housing unit) sanctions, the most restrictive form of isolation. The remaining were Keeplock sanctions, which is meant for less serious offenses, but still results in isolation for up to 23 hours per day.
  • The number of solitary confinement SHU sanctions has decreased by 2,400 since 2015, but the 3,1oo increase in Keeplock sanctions has resulted in an overall increase in the number of solitary confinement sanctions.
  • According to a snapshot of people being held in solitary confinement on October 1, 2019, 99 percent of people in solitary are men, 57 percent are Black, and 24 percent at Latinx.
  • The average length of a SHU sanction is 105 days, but 2,600 people were held in SHU for more than 90 days, and 131 people had sanctions of one year or longer.
  • In 2018, 32 percent of SHU sanctions and 36 percent of Keeplock sanctions were given to people with mental health challenges.

When the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) did not pass in New York’s last legislative session, Gov. Cuomo and legislators worked with DOCCS to craft amendments to the state’s solitary confinement regulations that take some steps to reform the practice in prisons, and with the State Commission of Corrections to craft new regulations that take even smaller steps to reform solitary confinement in jails. In 2020, legislators have the opportunity to pass the HALT Act, which would go much further to transform solitary confinement in both prisons and jails across the state.

“Long-term solitary confinement is torture and can cause devastating life-long psychological and physical harm. It has no place in New York’s prisons or jails,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “While the proposed regulations by DOCCS take some steps to address the issues with solitary confinement, the legislature must end all prolonged isolation by passing the HALT Act.”

The differences in the projected impact between the DOCCS regulations and the HALT ACT are stark.

  • Limits to the length of solitary sentences and who can be held in solitary confinement would lead to a 43 percent decrease in the SHU population under DOCCS’ proposal, and an 88 percent reduction under the HALT Act. Crucially, because the HALT Act would limit all Keeplock sanction lengths and DOCCS’ proposal would not, the HALT Act would eliminate long-term solitary confinement by tens of thousands of sanctions annually, while DOCCS’ proposal would only do so for a few thousand. 
  • DOCCS’ proposal of a phased-in cap on the length of solitary confinement sanctions would take three years to come into full effect. Even then, it would allow 30 days in solitary, double the amount of time defined as torture by the United Nations. The HALT Act would cap sanctions at 15 days and go into effect one year after passage.
  • DOCCS’ proposal does not restrict back-to-back sanctions, creating a loophole that still allows people to be held in solitary confinement for months. By contrast, the HALT Act restricts confinement to 20 total days within any 60-day period.
  • The time-cap for DOCCS’ proposal does not apply to Keeplock confinement sanctions served outside of SHU, which make up the vast majority of solitary confinement sanctions. This means that tens-of-thousands of Keeplock sanctions would be capped at 15 days under the HALT Act but could continue to result in months in confinement under DOCCS’ proposal.
  • The HALT Act would end the most harmful uses of solitary confinement currently in practice throughout New York by capping the amount of time you can be in solitary, banning the use of solitary for certain populations, and creating better confinement conditions, including more programming and out-of-cell time.  

“We have the opportunity to end inhumane solitary confinement practices across the state,” said Phillip Desgranges, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “DOCCS’ proposal is a half measure that simply will not bring New York in line with our human rights values. Through the HALT Act, the legislature has an opportunity to end the torturous practice of long-term solitary confinement, reduce the population of those in solitary by the thousands, and bring a much needed end to inhumane solitary confinement practices in the state.”

“The numerical differences alone of who would be barred from being placed in solitary confinement under HALT show that the DOCCS’ regulations are inadequate, said Michelle Shames, data and research strategist at the NYCLU. “The data underscores that with DOCCS’ proposed regulatory amendments alone, far too many people would continue to suffer immensely from the harms of solitary confinement.”

The full text of the report is available at http://nyclu.org/solitary.

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