Advocates Hope New Momentum Around Racial Justice Will Accelerate New York’s Plans To Limit Solitary Confinement
A year after state officials said they would take steps to overhaul solitary confinement rules, prisoners remain isolated in conditions that one says is akin to being ‘buried alive.’
This is Sean Ryan’s 26th year in administrative segregation. The 61-year-old, now at Attica state prison in New York, spends 23 hours each day in a cell the size of a bathroom. In a letter to state legislators, he describes it as a “sense of entombment and being buried alive.”
Last year, Ryan and his mother, Arlene Normyle, had pinned their hopes on New York’s HALT (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term) Solitary Confinement bill, which would limit time in solitary confinement to 15 days and finally give Ryan a chance to return to the general prison population. The bill had passed the Assembly in 2018 but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. The November 2018 election changed the make-up of the Senate and, at the start of the 2019-20 legislative session, advocates hoped that the bill would finally pass.
Their hopes were dashed. Instead of bringing the bill to a vote in June 2019, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to new administrative regulations: In 2021, SHU (Special Housing Unit) placement would be capped at 90-day stretches; on or after October 2022, it would be capped at 30 days. SHU placement would be prohibited for adolescents as well as pregnant or disabled people. They also agreed to a similar set of regulations for local jails.
A year later, none of the regulations have been adopted and people like Ryan remain confined to solitary units with little to no human contact. Even when the rules are enacted, advocates say they will be“woefully inadequate” because they do not limit total time in isolation or time in non-SHU solitary. Those same advocates are now hoping that the national momentum around racial justice will extend to those behind bars across the state—including those entombed in long-term isolation. “We should also be standing up for the Black lives that are currently incarcerated,” said Anisah Sabur, a member of Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, the coalition that has been pushing the HALT bill.
Today, approximately 50 prison justice organizers began camping out in Albany’s Capitol Park to urge lawmakers to pass HALT and other prison bills. They brought with them a replica of a New York State solitary cell and cardboard tombstones of people who have died while in the state’s prisons.
The names for 23-hour isolation vary—there’s the SHU, a dedicated isolation unit for those who violate prison rules; keeplock, or being locked in one’s own cell for at least 23 hours each day; administrative segregation for those who are thought to pose a risk to safety and security (even if they have not broken a prison rule or if their SHU sentence is over). New York prisons have more than 1,700 people in some form of solitary. Regardless of the name, each classification entails being locked in a cell for 23 hours each day.
Ryan is white, but on both the state and city level, solitary disproportionately affects Black people, who represent approximately 15 percent of all New Yorkers, but 48 percent of state prisoners. Fifty-seven percent of those in solitary are Black, according to an October 2019 snapshot. In New York City’s jails, of the 627 in some form of punitive solitary between January and March, 392 were Black.
Officials in New York City aren’t waiting for Cuomo’s regulations. Instead, on June 29, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Board of Correction, a city agency that monitors jail conditions and issues jail rules, announced the formation of a working group to eliminate all solitary in the city’s jails. Advocates, however, called the new working group—which includes Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann and Benny Boscio, president of the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association—“unnecessary and a delay tactic.”
The city’s change in direction came too late for 27-year-old Layleen Polanco, an Afro-Latinx trans woman detained at Rikers Island on $501 bail in 2019. Polanco was placed in the Transgender Housing Unit, a unit specifically for trans women. After a physical altercation with another woman, she was sentenced to 20 days in punitive segregation (solitary). She also exhibited serious mental health issues and was referred to mental health services twice in two days. On May 15, before she could see mental health services the second time, Polanco hit an officer on the arm and was transferred to Elmhurst Hospital for nine days.
Jail regulations prohibit placing people with serious mental illness or with serious medical conditions in punitive segregation. A jail psychiatrist refused to clear Polanco for isolation based on her history of seizures. When she was returned to jail, she was placed in intake. Five days later, another mental health clinician authorized her placement in solitary and Polanco was transferred to the jail’s Restricted Housing Unit to begin her 20-day sentence. Eight days later, on June 7, Polanco died in her cell after an epileptic seizure. Video footage revealed that though jail policy requires officers to check on people in solitary every 15 minutes, they left her alone for 57, 47, and 41 minutes. When they did check on her, it was only perfunctorily; not until 2 hours and 45 minutes after she had last been seen awake did they enter her cell and—when they discovered her unresponsive and with a purple and blue face—call for medical assistance.
Sabur experienced solitary at Rikers two decades earlier—for reasons similar to Polanco’s. In 2000, Sabur was waiting in line at the cafeteria on Rikers when another woman pushed past her. They had a brief shoving match before an officer intervened, she said; Sabur then walked away. The next day, both women were transported to court. The other woman was released; Sabur was held on $750 bail and returned to Rikers. The following day, she was placed in solitary. Though it was November, she said she was issued flip-flops, a brown paper gown, a sheet and a blanket. The cold was terrible, but what made her time truly frightening, she said, was that the isolation caused her to begin seeing dead people, who invited her to join them.
In addition to working with the Campaign to End Isolated Confinement, Sabur is the coordinator of the Coalition for Women Prisoners. She’s been fighting for the passage of the HALT Solitary Act, knowing that it will allow hundreds, such as Ryan, to be released from the conditions that caused her to hallucinate.
When Polanco died, the Board of Correction was in the process of proposing more stringent regulations governing solitary in the city’s jails. The regulations, issued in October 2019, would have decreased the limit on punitive segregation from 30 to 15 days. (People who assault jail staff could still spend up to 60 days in solitary.) “The regulations didn’t go far enough,” said Stanley Richards, the board’s vice chairperson and head of the new working group. They limited time in solitary, but did not eliminate it. The purpose of the new working group, he told The Appeal, is to eliminate all forms of solitary. As of July 7, there are 111 people in punitive segregation and another 97 people in the Enhanced Supervision Housing unit, another form of isolation.
Richards not only monitors jail conditions, but has also experienced them firsthand. During the 1980s, he cycled in and out of Rikers, including punitive segregation. Being isolated didn’t make him more reflective or modify his behavior, he recalled. “It was never designed to do that. It was designed to be as brutal and traumatizing as a system can be.” Furthermore, he noted, “We’ve had decades of punitive segregation and it hasn’t ended jail violence.” What would make a difference, he said, drawing on his years of working at the Fortune Society, a re-entry services organization, is access to resources and services so that people can change their lives.
In April, Ryan received a prison-issued tablet. From isolation, he can now read the news online and call his mother, something he hadn’t been able to do for the past 18 years. Still, tablets and phone calls are not enough to break the isolation.
Normyle doesn’t remember how she first heard about HALT bill or became involved with advocacy efforts. But once she did, she was relentless. She read letters from her son to state legislators—letters describing being locked in a cell hearing only the screams of mentally ill people and the “haunting whistling sound” when people hang themselves. Being in long-term isolation, she read from one letter, “feels like the weight of a wet blanket.”
On June 7, 2019, Normyle joined advocates to rally outside Senator Stewart-Cousins’s office, urging her to bring the bill to a vote. When Stewart-Cousins left her office, Normyle made a beeline through the crowd to hand her documentation about her son. “Help us, please,” she beseeched the senator.
Neither Stewart-Cousins nor Assemblymember Heastie have responded to queries about whether they plan to bring the bill for a vote before the end of the 2019-20 legislative session.
On the city level, Richards says that the working group plans to introduce its recommendations in September. Those recommendations will form the basis for a new rule that the board will vote on. “Our charge is to end solitary by creating conditions that make our jails safe,” he said. “There will be no solitary confinement in New York City when our work is done.”