Brooklyn Boro

Will a hunger strike reform solitary confinement in New York?

June 18, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Victor Pate, organizer for #HALTsolitary Campaign, announces the hunger strike at the State Capitol. Photo courtesy of Michelle Lewin

When Anthony Dixon was held in solitary confinement for two straight years at ultra-maximum-security Southport Correctional Facility in upstate New York in the 1990s, he considered killing himself.

“After a year, something clicked inside of me that I could not identify. I was in a catatonic state. I was like a mummy in a mummy state,” Dixon told the Brooklyn Eagle. Dixon, a Crown Heights native, served 33 years in prison for murder.

He and 36 other advocates — including others who lived through solitary — began a hunger strike on Thursday, consuming only liquids, demanding the state overhaul the way in which it handles the isolated confinement of incarcerated people.

The activists are calling on the state legislature to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT, for short) before the session in Albany ends on Wednesday. If passed, the bill would set strict caps for the duration of solitary confinement: 15 consecutive days or 20 total days in any two-month period. There is currently no legal limit on how long prisoners can be held, and — like Dixon — some are held for years in solitary.

The bill also abolishes solitary confinement for people under the age of 21 or over the age of 55, people who are pregnant or have just given birth, and those living with disabilities.

The state was housing more than 2,400 people in solitary confinement as of June 1, according to statistics from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

A 2015 settlement between the state Department of Corrections and the New York Civil Liberties Union limited the use of solitary confinement in New York and got rid of certain violations that were once punishable by solitary. Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed codifying the settlement into law during budget negotiations this March, but ultimately, the changes fell through.

Cuomo said Monday that while he supports solitary confinement reform, it would require building $300 million in new jail cells. “I’m not about to build $300 million more in jail cells. That’s just totally inconsistent with everything that we’re doing,” the governor said in a radio interview with WAMC.

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“Gov. Cuomo’s own proposal for limiting solitary confinement included in his executive budget would have cost more than HALT, because it would not have restricted who could be sent to solitary confinement or the alternative units, as the HALT bill does,” the #HALTsolitary Campaign said in a response to the governor’s comments. “Even if HALT did not save the state money, it would be a moral necessity. There is no excuse for torture.”

In the Senate, the bill has had enough votes to pass since March. A similar bill passed in the Assembly in 2018, though it did not have support in the then-red Senate. But this year, the bill has not yet been brought to a vote, leading advocates to worry that time is running out.

“If you had asked me six months ago, I thought we had it in the bag, but these politicians have confirmed everything I ever thought about politicians,” said Joan Pleune, who lives in Boerum Hill and is also hunger striking. Pleune was a Freedom Rider in the 1960s. She was held in Mississippi State Penitentiary for five and a half weeks in solitary confinement.

“I hated solitary. When I first got there, I just wanted to shake the bars. I paced that cell all day every day. Physically, it makes you hurt. You aren’t moving. Not moving your body is a painful experience,” Pleune — now 80 years old — told the Eagle.

Victor Pate, the statewide organizer for the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, said that legislators are still “conferencing” the bills.

“It basically means they’re talking about the particular language of the bill, components of the bill that they have to make sure are clear and have a full understanding of what they mean,” he said. Pate is also hunger striking.

“It’s clear we have enough support in both houses for ending long-term solitary confinement in New York State,” State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda — who sponsors the bill in the Senate — told the Eagle. “We are working hard to make sure we bring this bill to a vote, and ensure incarcerated people in New York are treated with basic human dignity.”

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Pate spent a cumulative 15 years in prison, including a 90-day stint in solitary in Attica Prison.

“After the first week I began to hallucinate. I began to see things that weren’t in my cell. I began to have conversations with myself and with people that weren’t there. It began to deteriorate me psychologically,” he said, adding that when he was released from solitary, he had trouble integrating back into the prison population.

The hunger strikers rallied on Monday at the State Capitol, urging the legislature to bring the bills to a vote. This past weekend, they rallied outside Stewart-Cousins’ offices in Manhattan.

Pate is hungry, and has to look away when he sees people eating in the street. He’s avoiding restaurants. But he said the pain of the hunger strike is nothing compared to what people in solitary confinement face — and he knows they will get to break their fast if the Senate and Assembly vote.

“We’re probably going to do a collective fast-breaking,” if the bills pass, he said. “I think we will have something healthy. Plenty of fruit — I can tell you that.”

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