By Bill Parry
Several Queens lawmakers lent their support to the movement to end the torture of solitary confinement in New York state prisons last week.
During a rally at the state Capitol in Albany, nearly 300 activists — including Akeem Browder, the older brother of the late Kalief Browder — met with nearly 100 legislators to urge the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act in an effort to establish humane and effective alternatives.
“Inhumane solitary confinement needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. We need a comprehensive statutory solution like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to remedy this problem,” said state Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Jeffrion Aubry (D-East Elmhurst), the lead HALT sponsor.
“The research is out there and the numbers are clear: Targeted rehabilitation programs are more effective at reducing recidivism, than punitive, and sometimes arbitrary, solitary confinement,” Aubry said. “We need the HALT Solitary Confinement Act passed into law to ensure all New Yorkers are protected from the torture of solitary confinement. This act includes essential reforms and it’s time that we pass these much-needed reforms into law.”
Despite recent modest reforms, New York state holds nearly 4,500 people in isolation in its prisons and jails, according to Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, the rally organizer. The United Nations recognized the need to reform these practices when it adopted the “Mandela Rules” prohibiting solitary confinement exceeding 15 days.
“Long-term solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and has been shown to cause physical, emotional and psychological damage,” state Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-South Ozone Park) said. “We need to rehabilitate inmates so that they can become productive members of society and are less likely to commit future crimes. There can be no benefit to locking someone away in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day without any meaningful human contact or therapy.”
Solitary confinement is an issue increasingly on the public agenda with Pope Francis, President Obama and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer having all spoken out against the practice. Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows), the chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections, said the practice is not only inhumane, it is also bad public policy.
“Removing the social aspect of an incarcerated individual’s life does nothing to help that inmate re-integrate back into prison upon release from confinement or back into society upon release from prison.”
Social justice advocate Akeem Browder started the Kalief Browder Foundation after his brother committed suicide in 2015. Kalief Browder suffered from depression following three years on Rikers Island, much of it in solitary confinement. While he was never officially charged with stealing a backpack at the age of 16, he went through the ordeal because his family could not afford the $3,000 bail.
“With solitary confinement and its practices, specifically against those that are most vulnerable and most marginalized,” he said, “we must be vigilant and hard-pressed to demand justice so as to stop more tragic, disheartening loss of life like my brother, Kalief Browder.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr