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Mental Health Advocates’ Letter Urging New York to Enact HALT Solitary Confinement, S1623/A2500
Dear Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Heastie, and Governor Cuomo,
As mental health system and self-advocates for New Yorkers with or at risk for major mental health challenges, their family members and professionals from across New York State and beyond, we – the undersigned – are writing to respectfully urge you to immediately enact the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, S.1623/A.2500. New York’s use of solitary confinement is state sanctioned torture that causes intense suffering and devastating harm to people’s mental health and well-being, and has cost many vulnerable New Yorkers their lives.
As you read this letter, there are thousands of people – disproportionately Black and Latino people – in solitary confinement in New York State. Tens of thousands of people spend time in solitary in New York prisons and jails each year. In solitary, people spend 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell the size of a parking space, and their so-called out-of-cell recreation consists of being alone in another cage. People routinely spend months, years, and even decades in these conditions in New York.
Further, there are upwards of 900 New Yorkers with major mental health challenges who suffer in solitary confinement right now.
The sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness that result from this type of isolated confinement have long been proven to cause physical and psychological damage. Solitary has been shown to create or exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. Numerous studies have shown that even short periods of time in solitary confinement – measured in days – result in negative psychological effects.
Solitary increases anxiety, depression, and psychotic symptoms. It can induce a specific “psychiatric syndrome” that includes sensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and many other physical and psychological problems. If someone does not have mental health challenges before being placed in solitary, they will likely have major mental health conditions after being placed there.
It has also been shown that solitary increases the risk of suicide and self-harm. Data from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision indicate that nearly a third of all suicides in the state prisons take place in solitary. A study conducted in New York City jails, written by authors affiliated with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that people who were held in solitary confinement were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves and more than six times more likely to commit potentially fatal self-harm than their counterparts in general confinement, after controlling for length of jail stay, serious mental illness status, age, and race/ethnicity.
Based on numerous studies and conclusions that spending more than 15 days in solitary confinement for any person can result in permanent psychological damage, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture declared that holding someone in solitary beyond 15 days amounts to torture. In turn, the entire United Nations – with the support of the United States – passed the Mandela Rules, prohibiting solitary beyond 15 days for all people and banning the practice entirely for certain groups of people, including people with pre-existing mental health conditions.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act similarly includes a 15-day limit on solitary and prohibits it altogether for certain groups of people, including people with pre-existing mental health needs. HALT also includes more humane and effective rehabilitative alternatives that would help address the underlying reasons why someone might need to be separated from the general prison population. These alternatives would make prisons and jails safer for staff, as well as for incarcerated people. States that have reduced the use of solitary have seen a positive impact on safety for both incarcerated people and correction officers.
For all of the reasons above, and for the sake of the communities to which people held in solitary will one day return, New York’s mental health advocacy community calls on the Senate, Assembly and Governor Cuomo to enact the HALT Solitary Confinement Act immediately (in its current form without its provisions watered down).
We also recognize that HALT will not solve or right all the wrongs of our incarceration system. As mental health advocates and professionals, we are painfully aware that jails and prisons are not places where we should send people with mental health issues, and that, as generally run, they are more likely to cause major psychological harm than support rehabilitation and recovery.
As such, we also urge you to support a number of policy changes, including related to diverting people with mental health needs from incarceration, increasing parole releases, restoring full access to higher education and voting rights for people in prison and who have come home, ensuring access to medication assisted treatment, bringing marijuana justice, closing prisons and jails notorious for their brutality and inhumanity, providing safe and comprehensive reentry services, and more.
Thank you for your consideration, and we urge the Senate and Assembly to bring HALT to a vote and pass it immediately, and we urge the Governor to sign it into law.
New York must end this state sanctioned torture now.
(Please note that only name, position, affiliation, and region will be shared publicly)