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Legislature Passes Bill to Limit Solitary Confinement - Karen Maniraho

HOST: The New York State Legislature has passed the “HALT” Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would reduce the number of days people can be put in solitary confinement to 15. That would align New York with the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” a UN standard denouncing extended solitary confinement as torture. And as Karen Maniraho reports, solitary confinement uniquely affects women behind bars.

AMBI: Sign the bill! Sign the bill!

KAREN MANIRAHO, BYLINE: There’s a crowd of about 50 gathered in front of Governor Cuomo’s Office near Grand Central Station. It’s a mix of advocates, legislators, and formerly incarcerated people, as well as their loved ones. All are united in their goal to end the use of solitary confinement.

CANDIE HAILEY: I went through solitary confinement and I can tell you it was nothing but absolute torture.

MANIRAHO: Candie Hailey calls herself a solitary survivor. After being accused of a crime, Hailey was imprisoned at Rikers Island for three years. She was later acquitted. She was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for allegedly assaulting a corrections officer, a crime she denies. She’s here today to demand Cuomo sign the HALT bill into law.

HAILEY: I was denied sanitary napkins. I was denied showers even when I was menstruating.

MANIRAHO: Solitary confinement in New York often means being isolated in your unit for 23 hours per day. Hailey describes a small cell with a toilet uncomfortably close to where she ate her meals. She says the window in her unit could only be adjusted by prison staff. That meant in summer, it felt suffocating and the winter was often too cold to stand. She said she felt like a dog in a kennel that someone forgot about.

HAILEY: On one occasion I remember I ripped up my jumper, my Department of Correction jumper, and I put it there to catch the menstrual blood. And I got extra days in solitary because I destroyed DOC property, which was the jumper.

MANIRAHO: Women in solitary confinement face unique challenges. They are more likely to have a history of trauma and face hurdles addressing their reproductive health needs. According to the Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality, women of color, especially Black women, are held in solitary confinement at higher rates than white women.

For many women, the experience can take a severe toll on their mental health. The Correctional Association of New York reported two-thirds of self harm incidents and suicide attempts occur while women are in confinement. Before experiencing solitary at Rikers, Hailey says she hadn’t experienced mental illness before.

HAILEY: I tried to commit suicide every day. And the officers would tell me: “Oh, you're not doing it right. You're cutting from left to right, it’s supposed to go up and down.” So, I started going up and down.

MANIRAHO: For Serena Liguori, the fight for this bill is also personal. Liguori is Executive Director of New Hour for Women and Children, an advocacy group for women in jails.

SERENA LIGUORI: I'm a survivor myself, I was in solitary at 19 years old. And that experience was not only traumatizing, the sensory deprivation, but the trauma is lasting. So it continues even after incarceration.

MANIRAHO: Liguori has been fighting for this bill for more than a decade. For her HALT’s passage is like a celebration.

In 2019, Cuomo vetoed a different version of the bill saying its costs were too high. But a report from the Centers for Justice at Columbia University says limiting solitary confinement would save New York $132 million dollars per year.

The bill was delivered to the Governor on March 19th. Cuomo now has 10 days to sign or veto the bill. The Governor did not respond to our request for comment.

Karen Maniraho, Columbia Radio News.

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