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NYSACDL Issues Memo Of Support For Bills Reducing the Unjustified Risks from Solitary Confinement

Friday, June 5, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jennifer Van Ort
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On June 4th, the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NYSACDL) issued a memo supporting the repeal of Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law (NYS Legislature Bills S3695/A2513). Please see the memo here (PDF) and below.


Memo In Support
Bill S1623/ A2500 Reducing the Unjustified Risks from the Abuse of Power Posed by Solitary Confinement Which is Disproportionately Used to Punish People of Color

June 4, 2020

The killing of George Floyd has made the public keenly aware of the threats posed by institutional racism. Institutional racism creates a grave risk from the abuse of power. In the case of George Floyd, the abuse of power resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death simply because of the color of his skin. We should learn from this abuse of power and take action to prevent other serious risks posed by institutional racism such as the grave and unjustified risks posed by solitary confinement in New York State prisons. The New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asks the Legislature to pass Bill S1623/A2500, sponsored by Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda and Assemblyman Jeffrion L. Aubry, to reduce the unjustified risks from the abuse of power posed by solitary confinement which research has shown is disproportionately used to punish people of color. 

Black people represent about 13% of all people in New York State, but represent 50% of those incarcerated in New York State, and 60% of people held in long-term solitary confinement units in New York.  The New York Times conducted an investigation that examined 59,354 disciplinary cases. It found that at some prisons the rate at which black and Hispanic prisoners were punished was twice that of white prisoners.  Non-white prisoners also ended up in solitary confinement more often and were held there for longer periods of time. There was also evidence of racial disparity among prisoners subjected to use of force by guards. 

What makes the racial inequality particularly egregious is that solitary confinement is inhumane, counterproductive, and unsafe. There are very real consequences to both physical and mental health for those kept in social isolation for long periods of time.  People in isolated confinement in New York State can spend 22 to 24 hours a day locked in a cell the size of an elevator, alone or with one other person. They may be permitted 1-2 hours to exercise alone in a cage; they do not receive any meaningful programs or therapy, and often cannot make phone calls. The sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to intense suffering and severe psychological damage. Over 30% of all suicides in NY prisons from 2014-2016 took place in solitary confinement, though only 6% to 8% of all people in prison were in solitary. Isolated confinement serves no legitimate purpose. States that reduced their use of isolation in prisons by up to 75% saw significant decreases in prison violence. 

People are regularly held in isolation in New York State for periods of time that amount to torture. The entire United Nations General Assembly has denounced solitary exceeding 15 days. In 2015, the United States government voted for, and the entire United Nations adopted, the Mandela Rules, which prohibit any person from being held in solitary beyond 15 days.  New York currently places no statutory limit on the total time a person can spend in isolated confinement; something this very bill seeks to remedy.

Finally, of particular concern is that with such grave risks there is little oversight or due process safeguards in place. Hearings to adjudicate disciplinary tickets that result in isolated confinement are arbitrary and unfair. 95% of people charged with these rule violations are found guilty.  These processes occur within the closed prison system, with little public reporting. 

In his “Letter from Birmingham” Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “If we allow an injustice to happen in one place then we set the foundation for it to happen anywhere.” We cannot undo the harm caused to George Floyd and his family. We can however begin to eradicate the foundation upon which injustice is built here in New York. We cannot with one Bill erase the institutional racism that has plagued our Country and now burns in our streets. We can act now though, and with one Bill, restrict the unjustified use of solitary confinement, which has historically been used by those in power in a racially biased and unjust manner. 

Both houses have a majority of legislators co-sponsoring S1623 (Sepúlveda)/A2500 (Aubry) which would restrict the use of solitary confinement.  NYSACDL urges you to support this bill in the 2020 legislative session.


New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NYSACDL) is a statewide organization of criminal defense attorneys, representing approximately 1,000 private attorneys and public defenders who practice in courthouses in all parts of New York State. We are the New York affiliate of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a professional bar association founded in 1958 that has over 40,000 members nationally.