Victor Pate spent almost two years in solitary confinement in New York prisons, off and on. Once, he said, he was isolated for 90 days for having too many bed sheets in his room. Only two sheets were allowed per prisoner, but Pate was at his prison job when laundry pickup came, he said, so he kept a few extra sheets to ensure he would have clean ones.
Locked alone or with one other prisoner in cells that can be as small as an elevator for at least 22 hours a day, prisoners in solitary in New York don’t receive any meaningful rehabilitative programs or treatment, and often cannot even make phone calls. To Pate, it was like falling down an endless hole, with no one to reach for to remind him of his humanity. He began to hallucinate.
On any given day, around 4,500 people are in isolated confinement in New York State prisons (that includes people in separate Special Housing Units, as well as possibly a thousand isolated in their cells in what is known as Keeplock). That’s over nine percent of the total number of prisoners, more than double the national average. Most people sent to isolation in these prisons spend months or years there, some more than two decades—there is no limit. A prisoner might be placed in solitary for myriad transgressions of prison rules, most of them non-violent. Black people are disproportionately represented in solitary, as are young people and people with mental illness.
One person who had been held in solitary in New York told Human Rights Watch: “I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out.… I [tried to hang myself] the first day.”
Physically and socially isolated for days, weeks, or months with no treatment, people can deteriorate psychologically. Over 40 percent of all suicides in New York prisons in 2014 and 2015 took place in solitary, according to the Correctional Association of New York based on data obtained from the New York State Office of Mental Health.
Hundreds of prisoners placed in solitary confinement in New York are released directly from isolation to the streets each year. Those from New York City are simply dropped a block from Times Square.
Victor Pate survived solitary confinement. On May 2, Pate, who is now out of prison, will join other members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), including members of the Human Rights Watch New York Committee—in Albany to explain to legislators the damage that solitary confinement can do, and urge them to pass legislation to fix this broken system.
We are seeing movement in the US toward reform of solitary confinement. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly, with US support, adopted the Mandela Rules, under which no person should be held in solitary confinement for more than 15 days. In 2016, the US Department of Justice called for substantial reforms to the use of solitary confinement, including by banning the use of solitary for children in the federal Bureau of Prisons. Former President Barack Obama and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy have spoken out against the practice.
In 2016, the main New York City jail complex, Rikers Island, ended the use of solitary confinement for 16- to 18-year-olds, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced an end to punitive solitary confinement for people under age 21.
In December 2015, New York State also agreed to a landmark settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union that is beginning to reform the use of solitary: SHU numbers have started to drop, and conditions for some people in the SHU are improving. New sentencing guidelines have also limited the amount of time a person can be in solitary for a single disciplinary infraction—though there’s no cap on total time in solitary if infractions accumulate, and no limit on the use of solitary for “administrative” purposes.
And while the settlement is important, even if it’s fully implemented, there will still be thousands of people in solitary confinement in New York, and it will still be possible to hold them there for months, years, and decades at a time. This needs to change. New York State should comprehensively change its use of solitary confinement. States that reduce their use of isolation by up to 75 percent have seen significant decreases in prison violence. The Humane Alternatives to Long Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act in the New York State legislature would limit the amount of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement, end the solitary confinement of particularly vulnerable groups, restrict the criteria resulting in solitary confinement, and create more humane and effective alternatives.
For Victor Pate and for all those who have followed him in the solitary confinement cells of New York State, the legislature should take action to approve this bill.