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Solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 consecutive days is recognized by the United Nations and various human rights organizations as torture. Even short-term stays can lead to permanent psychological damage and suicidal ideation. Despite these well-documented harms, New York has put thousands of people in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the state – sometimes for years – with little due process, and often for minor infractions.
In 2021, state lawmakers took a major step towards ending this brutal practice by passing the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act. There is also a bill with broad support in the New York City council that would go even further than HALT to end solitary in the city’s jails.
But there is evidence that the state is ignoring the requirements laid out under HALT. And the “tough-on-crime” resurgence that has gripped New York is emboldening opponents of solitary reform and ratcheting up the pressure to put more people in isolation. Please download, subscribe, rate and review Rights This Way. It will help more people find this podcast.
[00:00:00] Simon: Solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 consecutive days is recognized by the United Nations and various human rights organizations as torture. Even short-term stays can lead to permanent psychological damage and suicidal ideation.
[00:00:37] Despite these well-documented harms, New York has put thousands of people in solitary confinement in jails and prisons across the state. Sometimes for years with little due process and often for minor infractions. In 2021, state lawmakers took a major step towards ending this brutal practice by passing the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, or HALT Act.
[00:01:00] There's also a bill with broad support in the New York City Council that would go even further than HALT to end solitary in the City's jails. But, there is evidence that the State is ignoring the requirements laid out under HALT, and the tough on crime resurgence that has gripped New York is emboldening opponents of solitary reform and ratcheting up the pressure to put more people in isolation. We'll talk about all this in a moment, but first, I'd like to ask you to please download, subscribe, rate, and review Rights This Way. It will help more people find this podcast.
[00:01:34] And now I'm joined by NYCLU Policy Counsel Jared Trujillo, making his triumphant return to Rights This Way. You know him, you love him, friend of the show, Jared, thank you so much for coming back to Rights This Way.
[00:01:48] Jared: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:49] Simon: Of course. So, I guess, first, I want to talk about the harms of solitary confinement and why it's so important, especially the long-term solitary.
[00:02:02] Jared: Right. So, the harms of solitary confinement have freely been recognized in this country since the 1800s, for sure. In 1890, the Supreme Court really recognized the psychological harms of solitary confinement, the real physical harms that happened to people from solitary confinement, and just the lack of benefit of solitary confinement.
[00:02:23] Solitary confinement really wasn't used as aggressively as it is today, up until about the 1970s. From the late 1800s to the 1970s, solitary just wasn't used very much. But with the advent of mass incarceration, which really had its genesis in lots of ways in New York with the Rockefeller drug laws, and as prisons and jails got more full, blacker, and browner, solitary confinement just was weaponized against people a lot more frequently. And the harms that existed in solitary confinement in the 1800s, and even before, certainly exist today. Just real physiological and psychological decompensation for people. We think about cases that we know about, like Kalief Browder, like Layleen Polanco, real physical harms for people.
[00:03:14] And ultimately people even dying by suicide just because of how restrictive and how damaging solitary confinement can be.
[00:03:25] Simon: And can you talk about what the experience is like and why those psychological harms, you know, happen?
[00:03:33] Jared: People are social beings. People are not meant to be in isolation for hours and hours and hours a day. In New York, this was for up to 23 hours a day in isolation. People are meant to have no real stimulation.
[00:03:47] And if there is, allegedly, a reason that someone is put into solitary confinement, merely putting someone into a space where they have no other human interaction and also no rehabilitative programming just isn't a meaningful or realistic way to assume that you're gonna be able to change people's behavior or to have better outcomes for folks.
[00:04:08] And, so, that's why solitary is so harmful in, in ways that again, just really make people psychologically decompensate.
[00:04:18] Simon: Yeah, and we're gonna talk about the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, or HALT Act, in a moment. Before we get to that, can you talk about the ways that solitary was used in New York before that Act was passed, and I guess I'm particularly interested in the reasons why people were sent to solitary and also how long some of the people ended up sitting in isolation?
[00:04:46] Jared: Right. So I, I'll answer this with the caveat that even though the HALT Solitary Confinement Act was implemented more than a year ago, there have still been some significant issues as far as getting the state to actually comply with the law that the state passed. But, before HALT, it was legal for people to be put into solitary confinement.
[00:05:05] Which, you know, goes by many different names, but the key ingredient, the key element is that people are locked by themselves away from other human interaction for up to 23 hours a day, if not more. And so people were placed into solitary confinement by different names for administrative violations, minor infractions, just really as a way to punish people for stepping out of line or allegedly stepping out of line in almost anyway. There's very little process and really people could be put into solitary confinement for years.
[00:05:41] Simon: And so, given that reality, lawmakers in 2021, they passed halt which caps how much time people can spend in solitary confinement. It limits why they can be put there and it also restricts who can be put in solitary. Can you lay out the details of that legislation and why it's so critical?
[00:06:02] Jared: Sure. You said it. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act does not end solitary completely in New York. But it does get New York to comply with the UN Mandela rules and really international standards for what is torture. Solitary confinement is torture. And HALT is a measure to really reduce the harm of that torture and to bring New York really into compliance with most of the world. And so HALT restricts anyone from being put into solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. 15 days is still a lot. And HALT is, you know, again, a step, but restricting people from being put in for more than 15 days prevents people from being put into solitary for months or for years as people certainly were before HALT.
[00:06:46] And there are still some issues with the compliance now. In addition, HALT recognizes that there's several special populations where these folks cannot be put into solitary at all because of how harmful it could be. So, especially right now, um, at a period where I think there's a lot of hypervigilance around reproductive rights, solitary prevents folks that are pregnant or immediately postpartum from being put in. HALT also prevents very young people – so those that are under 21 – from being put into solitary confinement, and people that are older than 55. We know that someone who's incarcerated that's 55 is physiologically similar to someone who's in their seventies just because of how hard incarceration can be on people's bodies. And then HALT also prevents people that have mental health issues or physical impairments from being put into solitary confinement. Again, just because of how harsh solitary can be.
[00:07:42] Simon: And you've mentioned a couple times – I'm pleased to say we're finally getting to this piece of it – HALT passes in 2021, but that's really not the end of the story because it's supposed to go into effect at the end of March of, of 2022, but there have been a number of reports – specifically from the nonprofit news outlet the New York Focus – that seem to indicate that the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or DOCCS, as it's known, has been ignoring various requirements in the law. So, for example, there's evidence that people are being kept in solitary longer than they are supposed to be. Jared, correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe there's also evidence that people who are not supposed to be put in solitary have been being put there.
[00:08:27] And there are other revelations as well, but can you talk about what DOCCS has been doing post-HALT?
[00:08:34] Jared: So the, the easy answer to that is just not enough. I mean, one of the more frustrating aspects of DOCCS's lack of compliance with HALT solitary is that this law being implemented wasn't a surprise. DOCCS had months and months and months to formulate regulations that could bring the state into compliance with all the requirements of HALT.
[00:08:58] They chose not to. Frankly, DOCCS didn't even introduce regulations to comply with HALT until about a week or so before the law actually was meant to take effect. Yeah. Since then, DOCCS has introduced several different emergency regs to implement HALT.
[00:09:18] But they have not even responded to public comment in all this time. And it's just deeply frustrating because even the emergency regs that DOCCS has, fall short of what the requirements of HALT Solitary are. And so it's just deeply frustrating because getting HALT across a finish line was really a herculean task.
[00:09:38] It required a lot of emotional labor, you know, I spoke about Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco before, and so many other people that have been victims of solitary, whether they've just been psychologically affected or they've died from it, their families have been some of the biggest proponents of getting HALT across the finish line.
[00:09:58] And so it took a lot of just, of course, labor from groups like NYCLU and others, but also a lot of blood, sweat and tears and people going up to Albany for over a decade to get this law across the finish line. And the fact that HALT has been in law for over a year now, however, New Yorkers aren't really able to benefit from what HALT was meant to be, is just really deeply frustrating and it's intentional, because DOCCS had more than enough time to comply with HALT. They could comply with HALT today if they wanted to and yet they've chosen not to. That was a choice, that was a policy decision.
[00:10:40] Simon: So, when we talk about the opposition to HALT and to curtailing the use of solitary just more broadly, it hasn't just come from DOCCS.
[00:10:51] And I know in your answer to the first thing we talked about sort of touched on this, that solitary is, it was tied in with the Rockefeller drug laws as you said. Opposition to things like HALT are tied into this current tough on crime, resurgence of mass incarceration, resurgence of locking people up and that being the only solution.
[00:11:12] And I think that corrections unions, and right-wing media outlets, and politicians, including Mayor Eric Adams in New York City, have really pushed back on any sort of efforts to reduce the use of solitary. Can you talk about the pushback and how it's linked to the tough on crime moment?
[00:11:33] And one thing I'll also say that I'd love your response to is just like, what they tend to say is some version of, this will make things less safe in the jail for people who are in prisons and jails, but also people who are guards at the facility or, or employees at the facility.
[00:11:50] What, what's your response to all of that?
[00:11:53] Jared: So, again, solitary confinement is not something that most countries in the world use to the extent that the United States does. It's something that, it should not be a forgone conclusion that we need to have solitary confinement.
[00:12:06] And the use of solitary did not make prisons and jails safer. They did not make communities safer. And restricting solitary confinement has not led to prisons or jails becoming more violent. Why is that? Because putting someone into solitary confinement is one of the worst ways that you could treat another human.
[00:12:27] And the resulting person that leaves that environment is less able to deal with conflict. Any psychological ailments that they were dealing with before are only compounded. And we know that there are so many other alternatives to solitary confinement. We can look at other countries in the world and see better ways that they're treating people that actually deal with underlying issues that oftentimes lead to people getting put into solitary confinement in the first place. People in New York that have been tried over the years, in New York City, we can look at the CAPS program, which is severely underutilized. There are just so many better ways to treat people than putting them into just this incredibly traumatic environment.
[00:13:10] As far as safety goes, for, in carceral facilities, in New York City in particular, there has been a federal monitor for years now because of the severe mismanagement of Rikers Island to the point where there's talk right now about there being a federal receiver appointed for Rikers.
[00:13:29] Rikers has rates of violence that are eight times higher than other similarly situated jails in the country. There is rampant medical neglect at Rikers where people are just not being produced for medical appointments, um, and there are just a host of other issues at Rikers Island. This has already been, per capita, one of the most deadly years on records at Rikers Island, where about 19 people have already died at Rikers. That's despite the jail population at Rikers being substantially lower than it's been in years past. Certainly too high, but substantially lower. And yet we still have lost that many people. Even if some of the corections unions would not define it as such, solitary confinement, and I'm talking about putting people in shower cells and other really restrictive forms of confinement, have absolutely contributed to the death rate at Rikers.
[00:14:22] We cannot say that we are meaningfully invested in safety if we are intentionally putting people into a form of confinement that has not been shown to actually increase safety, but has been shown to make people decompensate where they are and just completely lack any value as far as actually giving people the skills and tools that they need to thrive outside of carceral facilities.
[00:14:48] Simon: You mentioned there something that I'm hoping to get a little bit deeper into, the alternatives to solitary, some of the programs you mentioned, because I think exactly as you say, people, especially in the US, may feel like our choices are on the continuum of putting more people in solitary and making the, the jails and prison safer or putting fewer people in solitary and making jails and prisons more dangerous.
[00:15:15] But as you laid out in your answer there, that's not the case. That's a, that's a false dichotomy. That's a false choice. And that solitary can actually make jails more dangerous for everyone in the prison or jail. But I'm curious about those alternatives, the, programs or, or the other options that are available.
[00:15:33] Jared: So, these programs have existed in San Francisco. They have something called the RSVP program that actually works to ensure that people have skills and tools to be able to better relate to other people. And these are programs that don't rely on putting people alone for 23 hours a day. These are largely social programs. New York has programs. There is a CAPS program in New York City that is also a, more social program. Uh, It gives people access to other people and also enables people to have actual counseling, actual conversations, and to actually work through some of the underlying root causes that might have led to issues within a carceral facility in the first place.
[00:16:16] And these are programs again, that exist in the United States, but they exist other places as well. This is both HALT Solitary and the City Solitary bills intro 549 in New York City that would actually end solitary confinement in New York City. Both contemplate having just really extensive programming for people that's not only targeted to prevent people from decompensating, but is actually meant to make people better able to thrive.
[00:16:45] That are meant to be rehabilitative in nature, that are ultimately meant to actually improve safety. And this is something that you've alluded to before. Most people that are incarcerated will be back in the community at some point.
[00:16:59] At Rikers Island, um, in other jails, most people that are put into jails are people that are there pre-trial. They're people that are legally innocent, they might be people that are waiting for sentences, but oftentimes these are people that probably or will end up back in the community at some point.
[00:17:14] And are we really making communities safer when we're just traumatizing someone before they go back into the community? Are we really making people safer, even if someone does have concerning behavior, if instead of addressing that concerning behavior we just put people by themselves in conditions that do not create better results for people?
[00:17:38] That is not how you create public safety. That is not how you create community safety. And there are, beyond solitary, there are also several different initiatives that the NYCLU and several of our partners are working on that also really just enhance what community safety actually looks like.
[00:17:54] Simon: And Jared, the New York City bill that would end solitary confinement in New York City jails including Rikers, can you lay out what that bill would do? And I know you, you touched on some of the rehabilitative programs that are embedded within that as well.
[00:18:12] Jared: Sure. So, the biggest component of this bill is that it really ensures that people are not put into solitary confinement by many different names. One of the most frustrating things with the Department of Corrections right now is that they are not even fully acknowledging what segregated confinement really looks like in New York. So, recently the NYCLU testified at a hearing in the city council about what some of the issues of solitary are right now.
[00:18:39] And it was NYCLU and several advocates. And importantly, it was a lot of family members of people that have lost their lives due to solitary. It was deeply troubling that the commissioner of the Department of Corrections said on the record that DOC was not using shower cells when the family members of people that had just recently died in shower cells, which are tiny units that are not meant to house people, when they were sitting right there. The line from the Department of Corrections frequently and also from a lot of the corrections unions in New York City is that solitary confinement isn't being used.
[00:19:19] However, when they're confronted with it, the response is, oh, well it, it was used "that time." And the problem is that there are just far too many "that times." And "that time" is not just some philosophical technicality that occurs. "That time" is someone's brother, is someone's uncle, is someone's niece, is someone's neighbor, is a full human with potential – oftentimes a person that is legally innocent, who is being incarcerated because they can't afford to pay for their pretrial freedom – all those exceptions are real people. And that's what the City solitary bill is really aimed at, is making sure that people are not being put into solitary confinement, segregated confinement, whatever you want to call it.
[00:20:04] And then the other part of the City bill is really ending the scourge of solitary confinement is, it's not just ending it, it's talking about what replaces it. You know, and we can have a lot longer conversation about decarceration and what non-carceral programming could look like so that we're actually treating people in communities, but we're also recognizing that for people that are already incarcerated, is a lot better of a way to treat humans that you actually want to get better. Whether that be in the carceral facility that they're in today or back in the community, is that treatment is so much more important more meaningful and is more evidence-based than simply trying to hide someone for X amount of time, oftentimes with very little process and hoping to get a different result.
[00:20:49] Simon: And given the opposition that you've outlined from corrections unions, et cetera, how hopeful are you that this bill can actually pass?
[00:20:58] Jared: Uh, I'm really extremely hopeful that this bill could pass. Not only that this bill will pass, but frankly, that a lot of the other bills that we're working on, that our partners are working on some of the most marginalized New Yorkers are working on, will pass. I'm hopeful on the City bill, just, well one, because I saw what the state solitary confinement campaign looked like. It was, you know, a campaign that took more than a decade. NYCLU filed a people's litigation in 2011. But the whole campaign even really preexisted that. But just hopefully the city bill does not take 10 years.
[00:21:31] But at the same time you know, just seeing the resolve of this group knowing that so many of the people that that our family members are or were directly impacted by solitary confinement. Just knowing how much effort, emotional labor, um, and how much love people are really putting behind these campaigns really I, I think just shows that this is an issue we will win on. Also, just the numbers frankly. As of now, I believe, 38 of 51 members of the city council that have signed on as co-sponsors to intro 549, the bill that would end solitary confinement in New York, which is a super majority. And, you know, hopefully the Mayor comes around and so I'm really hopeful. Will it happen overnight? Probably not, but at the same time, I, I think that the bill that we finally do get out of the City is going to be a real meaningful and comprehensive bill that reduces a lot of the harms that folks have suffered from solitary confinement.
[00:22:25] Simon: And Jared, you mentioned something that I, think is important and that I, kind of want to end on, which is that, you know, HALT didn't just happen. It took a broad, multiracial, and multi-generational coalition that worked very, very hard and was relentless and that the City bill, to the extent that as far as it's gotten is due to similar dynamics and so to wind up here, I'm curious to know what people who are interested in joining this fight to curtail and end solitary – w hat can they do?
[00:22:58] Jared: So, I think that no matter what your skills are, no matter what your capacity is, no matter how many coins you have in your pocket, I think that everyone can contribute to this campaign in some way. Contributing could mean if there is a Board of Corrections hearing in New York City or a city council hearing in New York City, signing up to testify.
[00:23:17] If you don't wanna speak in public, you can always submit written testimony or you could even just tweet and support. You could contact your local city council member. You could contact the mayor, which I think is incredibly important. You could even contact the Board of Corrections and just let people know that this is an issue that you care about, that solitary confinement is torture, that no matter what name you call solitary confinement, it is torture. And just let people know that this is something that as a constituent you care about. On the state level, it is equally important. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act started getting pushback before it was even fully implemented.
[00:23:53] Simon: Right.
[00:23:53] Jared: Pushback from the state corrections unions, pushback from a lot of carceral forces, there's even been pushback to ending solitary confinement for very young people. And so the legislative session in New York goes from January to June. Anytime in that period, the biggest thing that you can do to help really make meaningful change here is to just let your elected leaders know that you care, whether that be on social media, in email, stop them at the supermarket. Just whatever it takes to really let them know that this is something that you're paying attention to, that solitary confinement is torture and in New York City and in New York State it's just not something that you are going to stand for.
[00:24:35] Simon: And with that, Jared, thank you so much for being on Rights This Way.
[00:24:39] Jared: Thank you so much for your time and thank you so much for really highlighting this issue. Uh, again, this is so important to so many people that are incarcerated, but really to all New Yorkers that care about community safety.
[00:24:51] Simon: We covered a lot, so let's go through some takeaways. Solitary confinement, especially long-term solitary, is incredibly dangerous and it can even be deadly. Contrary to what its proponents say, solitary does not make jails and prisons safer. It just causes more pain and suffering in facilities that are already traumatizing.
[00:25:15] The HALT Act at the state level and a local bill in New York City are incredibly important bills in the fight to end solitary confinement, but both face stiff opposition from the same forces that are pushing to lock more people up. We are a part of the broad coalition pushing both of these bills and you should join us.
Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting nyclu.org. And you can follow us @nyclu on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, I'm Simon McCormack.
Thank you for fighting for a fair New York.