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Prisoners Locked Out of State Criminal Justice Overhaul

Protesters advocating reforms for state prisons gathered outside of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins' Yonkers office, June 7, 2019.
Protesters advocating reforms for state prisons gathered outside of Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ Yonkers office, June 7, 2019. Photo: Scott Paltrowitz

At the tail end of a historic Albany session for criminal justice reform, progress for people already locked up in state custody remains tantalizingly out of reach.

Proposals to limit the use of solitary confinement, ease the release of elderly prisoners and boost pay for labor behind bars are all coming down to the final days of the Assembly and Senate calendars without a clear path to becoming law.

The stalemate follows passage of landmark bills that eliminate cash bail for many crimes and revamp the rules of pretrial discovery to give defense attorneys a timely look at the evidence against their clients — both of which are expected to make pretrial detention less common.

“We’ve seen significant steps towards real criminal justice reform in New York State, but not one of them affects any one of the 47,000 people locked up in prisons across the state,” said Dave George, the associate director of Release Aging People in Prison.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester).
New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester). Photo: andrea.stewartcousins/Facebook

The group is urging passage of a measure that would automatically grant parole hearings to all prisoners when they turn 55, if they have served 15 years or more. That would give thousands a chance at freedom.

The bill passed through committees in the Senate and Assembly this spring, but has stalled ever since.

A second measure, currently being redrafted but not expected to pass this session, would raise prisoner pay from a mere 13-to-16 cents an hour to $3 an hour.

Meanwhile, activists protested outside Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ Yonkers office Friday to urge the state Senate to pass the so-called #HALTsolitary bill, which calls for a 15-day limit or no more than 20 days over any two month stretch in solitary confinement.

A Movement to #HALTsolitary

Medical experts say the use of solitary punishment causes serious mental health problems, including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

“If you’re talking about re-entering society or re-entering the general population, if you separate any person for a long period of time that does nothing to make a person better,” said Victor Pate, the statewide organizer for #HALTsolitary.

“It’s only used for punitive purposes,” added Pate, who spent 90 days in solitary confinement when he was incarcerated more than two decades ago. “The only purpose is to serve as punishment. You don’t allow people to get better.”

After two weeks in solitary confinement, Pate started seeing things that weren’t there. He also had conversations with people that weren’t there “as a coping mechanism to hold onto the little bit of sanity and reality,” said the 67-year-old Queens resident.

New York’s prisons have made long strides toward reducing the use of solitary following a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, citing the deprivation conditions for an estimated 4,000 prisoners at the time. In 2015, the Cuomo administration agreed to limit the way correction officers use solitary confinement to punish prisoners who act out.

In the three years ending this April, the number of individuals serving a Special Housing Unit (SHU) sanction in a solitary confinement cell has declined by 42%, according to Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) attends the State of the Bronx address, Feb. 21, 2019.
New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) attends the State of the Bronx address, Feb. 21, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Still, prisoner advocates are urging state lawmakers to formally codify and further reduce the use of the 23-hour lockdown punishment.

The #HALTsolitary bill has the support of 33 state senators, one more than is required to pass legislation, and is expected to be the topic of closed-door discussion this week among the Democrats who control the chamber, a spokesperson told THE CITY. Whether leadership will bring it to the floor for a vote remains to be seen.

In the Democratic-dominated Assembly, which has passed the bill in previous years, 79 Democrats have signed on to support the measure. “We expect to pass a bill,”  a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said.

The Cuomo administration will review the measure, a spokesperson said.

No Raise Since 1992

Prisoner advocates seeking to persuade state lawmakers to revamp how prisoners are paid for their labor are resigned to waiting until next year. They are reworking their bill, which seeks to have prisoner wages be decided by the state’s Department of Labor.

“This is coming down the pipeline, and lawmakers should ready themselves for a sincere conversation about how we view prison labor in our state,” Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industrial complex.

Prisoners have not gotten raises since 1992.

“That’s outrageous,” said Jack Beck, a former director of the Correctional Association, one of the nation’s oldest inmate advocacy organizations. “If it was an appropriate wage in 1992 that can’t be appropriate by definition today.”

Prisoners typically use the money to buy basic hygiene items, like soap and shampoo, from the commissary, he said. Some also use the meager pay to purchase food.

“All the commissary prices have increased since 1992 due to inflation,” Beck said.

Some men and women have been locked up long enough to remember when they were paid even less than 13 t0 16 cents an hour for their labor. Supporters of the elder-parole bill remain hopeful that aging inmates will have the opportunity to make their case to the state Parole Board.

Differing Senate and Assembly bills make passage a challenge, but not impossible, on behalf of people long accustomed to holding out hope.

“For decades people like me really had a slim chance of ever getting out of prison,” said Jose Saldana, 67, who served 38 years for the attempted murder of a New York City police officer.

“But I’ve left some very good people in prison,” he added. “They are perhaps more deserving than I am. Unless this bill is passed, they will die in prison.”

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