Solitary confinement is an experience that many of us incarcerated have experienced. Sometimes called segregated confinement, being in the hole might mean spending 23 hours a day locked up alone for days or even years. A man named Albert Woodfox holds the record for the longest time spent in solitary, living nearly 44 years alone in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana.
But now, a new law in New York means incarcerated people can no longer be placed in solitary for extended periods.
On March 31, 2022, New York implemented legislation called Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement in a move intended to reduce the use of solitary confinement. New York joins at least 13 other states that have banned long-term solitary confinement in the last five years.
The negative effects on individuals in long-term solitary confinement, both psychologically and physically, have been well-documented. People subject to long-term isolation exhibit a wide range of mental health challenges emerging during and after their confinement.
Many enter prison with existing mental health conditions that are often exacerbated by the prison environment itself. The stress of solitary confinement is a significant reason for poor mental and physical health of incarcerated men and women. People who have spent time in solitary confinement are more likely than others to die prematurely from causes like suicide, homicide and drug overdose, even after they have been released.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act is the latest in a trend to reduce the use of solitary confinement across United States prisons as it becomes increasingly seen as cruel and unusual punishment. The number of people placed in solitary may now be half what it was in 2014, according to a 2021 survey by the Correctional Leaders Association and Yale Law School.
But the implementation of HALT is significant also in its scope. The new rule changes the definition of segregated confinement to include the confinement of an incarcerated individual in any form of cell confinement for more than 17 hours a day.
That means that incarcerated individuals in New York can no longer be placed in special housing units for longer than 15 consecutive days, or 20 total days in a 60-day period.
In situations where people are placed in solitary because they committed a violent felony, they can be confined for longer with time also spent in residential rehabilitation units, an alternative to the special housing unit. These units are designed to be rehabilitative and therapeutic, providing programs, therapy and support.
In a residential rehabilitative unit, an individual can be out of their cell for up to seven hours a day for therapeutic and recreational activities.
This is a significant, positive change in how sanctions are imposed and then served by the incarcerated. HALT has the clear purpose of deterring antisocial behavior and pursuing positive change — rehabilitation rather than just punishment.
But the efficacy of the program will depend on what kinds of behavioral outcomes materialize after incarcerated individuals complete their sanctions and are returned to the general population — and, more significantly, to their communities when they reenter society.
In the meantime, many security staff believe the legislation is making the day-to-day operations of general confinement less safe. Even among the prisoner population — at least among the older population here at Green Haven Correctional Facility where I reside — there is a widespread belief that the prison is now more dangerous.
Conversations around the facility with both staff and incarcerated people reveal a sense that the new rules will provide less of a deterrent to those who commit rule violations.
Penalties now center on the loss of privileges like access to the phone, recreation or the commissary, or a person’s ability to receive packages and property. Conversations I’ve had here at Green Haven, and with guys arriving from other facilities, make clear that cell confinement is now considered to be the last resort.
Previously, a simple fight, being out of place, stealing or getting a positive urinalysis for a controlled substance were all rule violations that led to cell confinement until a hearing was held to determine guilt or innocence.
Prior to HALT, the rule violation hearings themselves could be coercive. Individuals sometimes pleaded guilty even when they had not committed violations just to avoid extended confinement. Now, individuals charged with the same violations can still participate in regular program activities until the hearings are completed.
One officer told me he understood the mental health concerns around solitary confinement, but he noted that “the level of fights have increased, more uses of force have occurred, and I have a greater chance of being injured responding to a fight.”
For security staff, this translates to a loss of control.
Since the implementation of HALT, I have observed that confinement in special housing units here at Green Haven has decreased significantly, limited to weapons-related violence and other serious threats to safety and security.
I have also noticed that trips to special housing units have been short in duration. These short confinements may partly be because there aren’t enough residential rehabilitation units. With just a handful of these facilities in the state, not everyone who should be in a residential rehab setting is getting in. The result is even more lenient penalties for violations.
In November, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association called for a full repeal of HALT, citing data that showed an increase in violence in New York prisons.
According to data maintained by NYSCOPBA, there were 1,489 assaults on staff and 1,486 inmate-on-inmate assaults in 2022, up from 1,177 assaults on staff and 1,265 inmate-on-inmate assaults the previous year. The 2022 numbers are single-year records, according to their data.
But a report from New York Focus in late September showed that the majority of people held in solitary confinement in state prisons after the law was enacted last year “had been there for longer than state law allows” — indicating the new law is being undermined.
If New York prisons have, in fact, become more dangerous, I believe this has less to do with the implementation of HALT and more to do with other policies that HALT does not address.
It’s time to address the other holes in the system that need to be patched for true rehabilitation to happen.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.