In the ongoing push to get the HALT Bill (Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement) passed in New York State, I recently joined busloads of advocates at the State Capitol in Albany to meet with legislators to urge this bill’s passage. Having overseen mental health treatment at the 500-cell solitary unit on Rikers Island, I witnessed the inhumanity of this punishment firsthand. But my commitment to this cause was reinforced in a chance encounter with a man I met in a conference room while waiting for an assemblywoman to join us. His name was “Gabriel,” and I was surprised when he told me he'd been held in solitary at a New York State prison. With his long dreadlocks and soft gentle demeanor, he didn’t remotely fit the general perception of someone held in solitary confinement – usually depicted as the “worst of the worst – the baddest of the bad.”
But the biggest surprise was yet to come – the reason he’d been placed in solitary. He told me that officers had come to his cell, rummaged through his things, and determined that he had an excessive number of postage stamps. For this infraction, his punishment was 30 days in solitary confinement! For 30 days Gabriel occupied a windowless cell with a light bulb that never turned off, and ate meals from a food tray that came through a flap in the door. At a time when the United Nations has declared that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days constitutes torture – this poor man spent 30 days in a New York State solitary cell for having too many stamps! With over 4,000 people currently being held in solitary confinement in NY prisons, how many of them are in there for non-violent, meaningless infractions? Now, more than ever, we need the HALT Bill to rein in the abuse!