Thoughts on the Passing of the H.A.L.T. Law in New York

By JBL! Board Treasurer, Tom Terrizzi

I join in celebrating this significant legislative initiative to limit the devastating effects of long term solitary confinement. While we should celebrate, it’s important to recognize that this is only another step forward and not a complete solution. Like so many events in the fight for civil rights, this represents an opening for real change which will require advocates doubling down to insure that it’s implemented and that efforts to limit its effect are confronted and addressed.

As many of you know, I have spent the last 45 years as a prisoner’s rights attorney, both in private practice and with Prisoner’s Legal Services of New York. I began litigating the constitutionality of long term solitary confinement, through both class actions and on behalf of individuals, from the day I started working as a lawyer in NY. I worked with many other attorneys and advocates, jailhouse lawyers, criminal justice reform advocates, Democratic legislators, family members and concerned citizens, and the world’s top experts on the mental and physical effects of solitary confinement. They all deserve credit for bringing us to this point.

I have observed first hand the conditions in solitary confinement units throughout the state, sometimes on discovery inspections in federal civil rights cases, sometimes accompanying federal judges who presided over those cases and sometimes monitoring the conditions to insure that change occurred as required by court ordered settlements. I have dealt with people, clients, who have spent years, and decades in solitary. At one point, there were over 6,000 people in solitary in NY, probably the world’s leader. No one goes through that experience unscathed.

Meaningful progress in such a highly controlled atmosphere as a prison does not happen quickly. It sometimes takes a decade or more because of the unequal power dynamic at play and the fact that what goes on is hidden from public view.  There are and will be constant efforts on behalf of prison officials to retain as much control as possible. It’s happening already, with Governor Cuomo, in his signing statement, signaling that he wants changes to the legislation. It’s important to recognize that the largely unchecked power to throw someone into the “box’ is at the heart of one of the most devastating effects of mass incarceration. Black people in prison receive almost 60 percent of sentences to solitary, out of proportion to their numbers in the general prison population, which is also out of proportion to their numbers in society. This bill reflects NY’s recognition that this form of repression and  torture is unacceptable here, as spelled out in the Mandela Rules which established a guide for progressive change everywhere.

The main provisions of the new bill do not go into affect for a year. The next several years will be very difficult for people in prison as new rules are developed and go into effect. Prison guards, who are in control of daily life inside, ultimately will have to implement any new rules. Changing the power dynamic requires a cultural change while one side still posses all the power. One prison that will be significantly affected is in Malone, Upstate Correctional Facility, an all “solitary” prison, which holds hundreds of people daily under conditions that expose them to serious damage to their mental and physical health. Other state systems like California, who have been ordered to dismantle similar units, even by the Supreme Court, have found creative ways to replicate the damage by simply changing the locations and names of the units.

As in any significant civil rights advance, an incredible effort will be needed by all of us, by people in prison, their lawyers, legislators and advocates to monitor the progress and respond quickly to efforts by the system to protect the status quo. We all know this from being involved in so many other civil rights efforts. We see it playing out today in newly enacted Jim Crow voting rights restrictions and as we watch the George Floyd murder trial. These are struggles which never end but where there is hope for change if we stay at it.

Thank you for indulging me in this long winded reflection. I’m so glad that John Brown Lives! is part of the effort to improve the lives of our incarcerated neighbors. In the past we have sponsored presentations in the North Country by Doug Vanzandt and Alicia Barraza, whose son Ben, suffered from mental illness and committed suicide in solitary. After his death, they spent years advocating for change. Doug built a replica of a solitary cell and they took it around the state to show people the horror of it. And they set it up in the Concourse in Albany so that legislators passing by would have to confront the torture happening on their watch. Today we celebrate this important step forward with them.