ALBANY, New York — Advocates and some New York legislators on Wednesday called for restricting solitary confinement for state inmates, citing a United Nations expert's conclusion that more than 15 days' isolation damages people mentally.
Gathered in Albany, more than 100 advocates for inmates heard the videotaped words of Juan MÃ©ndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who said that the practice of solitary confinement worldwide is contrary to rehabilitation and can constitute torture.
State lawmakers told the group that about 4,000 of New York's approximately 53,000 state inmates are in so-called special housing units in its 54 prisons, most for non-violent rule infractions.
"If they don't stop overusing it, we'll take away their ability to use it," Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell said. The Manhattan Democrat, who chairs the corrections committee, said he gets about 150 letters weekly from inmates including reports of mentally ill prisoners who by law shouldn't be there.
O'Donnell sponsored legislation that would make solitary confinement "a measure of last resort," for the minimum period needed and ban it for inmates under 21. The bill has begun advancing through committees in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
O'Donnell noted that the Albany County Jail recently had only three of 36 isolation units occupied, while a state prison he didn't name had 40 of 42 units occupied.
"I've known men who lost their minds," said Tyrrell Muhammad, who recalled the pain of his own seven years in solitary confinement.
He had the name Edward McLeary when he went to state prison in 1980 from Brooklyn at age 20 on murder and robbery convictions. He was paroled in 2005, after earning a bachelor's degree from Syracuse University and a master's degree from New York Theological Seminary.
Muhammad said the isolation retards reasoning and cognitive skills, reverting adults to adolescent thinking. He's still in therapy, he said.
Corrections officials said Wednesday that the number of inmates in special housing units has declined over four years, that the prisons are compliant with the law and that inmates designated seriously mentally ill with a confinement sanction beyond 30 days are removed to a mental health treatment unit.
Another bill, recently passed by the Assembly, would prohibit solitary confinement for pregnant and nursing mothers, except in cases of an immediate and severe safety threat. The measure is intended to codify a lawsuit settlement last year between state corrections officials and the New York Civil Liberties Union that established "a presumption" against isolating pregnant prisoners. Sponsors say that law would also affect local jails.
Corrections spokeswoman Linda Foglia said current policy prohibits pregnant inmates from solitary placements and no nursing mothers are currently in isolation.
The federal court stipulation in early 2014 barred using isolation to discipline inmates under 18. Another settlement eight months later with Prisoners' Legal Services in state court precluded isolation for prisoners under 18, required review of all inmates under 21 currently and formerly in solitary confinement and resulted in a new regulation to consider age as a mitigating factor in disciplinary cases.
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Perkins, a Manhattan Democrat, would prohibit isolating young, elderly and developmentally disabled inmates and set 15-day limits for others. He said it's hypocrisy to say the punishment is inhumane for one group and humane for others.