- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York state would restrict the use of solitary confinement and ban it entirely for young, elderly, pregnant and mentally ill inmates under legislation before state lawmakers.

A coalition of prison reform advocates, mental health experts and religious groups gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday to urge passage of the bill before lawmakers adjourn their session next week.

The measure would limit solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days unless an inmate is sent to a special rehabilitation unit, where he or she would receive special treatment to address their behavior.

By his recollection Victor Pate spent a total of 2 years in solitary while serving time for robbery and drug crimes decades ago, including a 90-day stint in isolation for keeping extra bed sheets. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said the crushing loneliness of spending 23 hours a day in a small cell is compounded by mistreatment from guards, who regularly deprive people in solitary of food, showers or exercise.

“A lot of time people without a mental illness come out (of isolation) with a mental illness,” he said.

The changes have broad support in the Democrat-controlled Assembly but face big challenges in the Republican-led state Senate. The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association has opposed attempts to restrict what the organization says can be a useful method of decreasing prison violence.

Association spokesman James Miller said critics of solitary confinement don’t understand the reality of modern prisons. Miller said most correctional facilities don’t even use the term any longer, preferring the name “special housing unit.” He said inmates put in special housing receive more medical, psychological and educational services than typical inmates.

“What the sponsors of this legislation fail to recognize on a regular basis, while they advocate on behalf of the inmates, are the daily threats and attacks that our members face every day from an increasingly violent prison population,” Miller said. “Removing or reducing all aspects of discipline will severely diminish the ability of officers to maintain order.”

In 2015 the state agreed, in a legal settlement, to reduce solitary confinement in state prisons and improve training of guards.

Some 4,000 people are held in solitary confinement at any given time in New York state. Federal numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that nearly 20 percent of state and federal prisoners across the nation have served some time in isolation, and that 4.4 percent of all prison inmates are in solitary on an average day.

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