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An End to Solitary Confinement? The HALT Act and the Future of Criminal Justice in the US

After years of contention, debate, and uproar surrounding the inhumane practice that is solitary confinement, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York signed a new bill into law that will significantly change the role it plays for those behind bars. The new bill will regulate the use of solitary confinement while also pushing for alternative methods of rehabilitation.

Solitary confinement has remained relatively unregulated until now, despite the devastating mental and physical toll it has been proven to cause. There are accounts of prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for years on end. As with the criminal justice system in general, solitary confinement is also used disproportionately on people of colour; 80 percent of solitary prisoners in New York are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Colour), of which 57 percent are Black. Solitary confinement directly causes clear suffering, with studies showing that it exacerbates paranoia, anxiety, and rage, among other mental health issues. Moreover, in some cases, this can lead to suicide, with solitary confinement having a suicide rate 5 times greater than that of the general prison population.

Despite this, the US has continued to use solitary confinement more extensively than any other country. Prisoners have been repeatedly kept in cells the size of elevators for 22.5 to 24 hours a day for indefinite and prolonged amounts of time. In some cases, they have remained there for decades, despite the United Nations deeming any confinement over 15 days as torture.

The catalyst for reforms surrounding solitary confinement has often been cited to be the case of Kalief Browder, a teenager who spent two years in solitary confinement in New York’s Rikers Island jail without a trial for stealing a backpack. He was left with lasting mental health issues as a result of his inhumane treatment in jail and in solitary confinement and died as a result of suicide following the ordeal. The case highlighted the neglect of individuals within the prison system and the long-lasting damage caused by solitary confinement. However, even with increased attention on Rikers Island following the Browder case, in 2019 yet another prisoner died as a direct result of the neglect and inhumane treatment that is solitary confinement. Layleen Polanco died alone of an epileptic seizure in a solitary cell despite guards knowing of her health issues. Once again, this tragic case brings to light massive flaws in the justice system.

Under the new Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT):

  • The use of solitary confinement will be restricted to a maximum of 15 consecutive days within a 60 day period, after which, if needed, people will be moved to high-security rehabilitation units for treatment.

  • The definition of solitary confinement will be broadened to include all cell confinement in which a person is held for more than 17 hours a day.

  • Solitary confinement will be prohibited for those under 21 and over 55, those with disabilities, pregnant women, and those raising children in a facility.

  • Staff will need to undertake 37.5 hours of training, and additional 21 hours annually, while assigned to solitary confinement units.

  • All inmates will need to be offered a minimum of 4 hours recreational time outside their cells, including 1 hour outdoors.

The new legislation will follow the UN’s Mandela Rules, a set of 122 rules unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 that outline the minimum standards for prisoners and give guidance on prison management.

It is hoped that the new HALT bill will bring needed change to the criminal justice system in the US by eradicating solitary confinement and replacing it with more humane alternatives focused on rehabilitation and education. However, many have remained critical of the bill, voicing concern that it is simply a “re-brand” that will still fail to tackle the issue at its core. The HALT Act was passed as a result of strong scientific evidence against solitary confinement and following cases that later became known to the public. However, the issue of the mistreatment of prisoners and the nature of the judicial system in the US is yet to be considered to the same degree, despite growing evidence against the capitalistic way in which the system currently operates.


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