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BWW TV: Karen Olivo, Daniel Breaker and More Call for Passage of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act

Today, actors and activists with roles in some of Broadway's biggest hits launched a video in which they read the devastating words of people in solitary confinement in New York's prisons. While Broadway is shuttered and as people are struggling with home confinement, New Yorkers are getting just a small glimpse of the exponentially more devastating horrors of solitary confinement. In ordinary times, the sensory deprivation, lack of normal interaction, and extreme idleness of solitary can lead to severe psychological, physical, and even neurological damage. More than 30% of all prison suicides in New York take place in solitary. A recent study found that people who spend time in solitary are much more likely to die upon release from prison, including because of increased rates of suicide. During this pandemic, these physical and mental health harms of solitary are greatly exacerbated and weaken people's immune systems, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Meanwhile, rather than following the advice of health experts to release thousands of people from prison and ensure the health and safety of those left behind, New York is doubling down on the use of solitary, including with facility-wide lockdowns and individual placements in solitary for people who report symptoms.

While human rights standards adopted by the United Nations state that solitary beyond 15 days is torture, New York State regularly holds people in solitary for months, years, and decades. A campaign led by survivors of solitary confinement and their loved ones is organizing to pass the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would end this torture and replace it with more humane and effective alternatives. The actors are Joshua Boone, Daniel Breaker, Jin Ha, Karen Olivo, and Nik Walker. The video was directed by Kate Whoriskey, with Tony Gerber serving as Director of Photography and Sebastian Diaz as Editor and Camera Operator.

Nik Walker, actor and activist, said: "There are so few of us left, who truly don't have a single tether to the U.S. prison system. My own brother has been incarcerated since 2003. Crime remains punishable, but people convicted of crimes remain human. Prolonged solitary hurts all of us in the end, and I'm proud to lend my voice to any and all efforts to see it done away with."

"New York State is allowing for prison practices that are viewed as torture by the U.N. We, as New Yorkers, have the responsibility to stop the abuse and pass the HALT Act Now," said Kate Whoriskey, who directed the video.

"Every day our country poisons itself by the misguided obsession with and investment in the broken system of mass incarceration. We have the largest prison population and highest per-capita incarceration rate in the entire world--to no avail. And in many of these prisons, we torture our own citizens--to no avail. Long term solitary confinement does not work. We have the data. It does not fulfill its intended purpose. And it is a morally reprehensible and inhumane practice that must be halted immediately," said Jin Ha, actor and activist.

BACKGROUND: Even prior to COVID-19, use of solitary confinement had actually increased since Governor Cuomo claimed to have implemented reforms in 2015. Advocates are calling for lawmakers to enact HALT - which has majority support in both the Senate and Assembly - to end this racist torture and replace it with more humane and effective alternatives.

In ordinary times, solitary itself is a public health crisis that causes immense suffering and far too often leads to heart disease, psychosis, self-mutilation, and death. Deemed torture under international standards, people in solitary are locked in a cell without meaningful human contact or programming. New Cornell research found that even a few days in solitary confinement - and even only one or two days of solitary - led to significantly heightened risk of death by accident, suicide, violence, and other causes. One study published this summer in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that solitary confinement is associated with a 31% increase in hypertension. Approximately one-in-three people in solitary who participated in the study were more likely to experience heart attacks, strokes, and - unsurprisingly - higher degrees of loneliness, which also contributes to heart disease. This study was followed by another one this fall which found solitary confinement is associated with increased rates of death after release, particularly by suicide as well as overdose.

During this pandemic, these physical and mental health harms of solitary weaken people's immune systems, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Also the harms of solitary are greatly exacerbated by the pandemic and the prisons' response to it, particularly with family visits prohibited, restrictions on packages, and the overall anxiety and fear of the virus. Just imagine a person who already suffers from paranoia or other mental health challenges being in solitary during this time, with all the uncertainty and fear around the virus, lack of information, and lack of contact with the outside world. In addition to demanding as a top priority that as many people be released from prison as possible, health experts have also called for correctional systems to stop the use of solitary and avoid lockdowns as a response to the virus.

According to Dr. Homer Venters, for example: "Outbreaks often stir a desire to lock people away in cells, with the notion that germs won't spread if people are sealed in individual cells. Nothing could be farther from the truth. ... Also, being placed in solitary confinement causes extreme distress, and inside the brutal and filthy solitary units I've observed around the nation, this practice drives violence and fractures engagement between health staff and people who are sick just when we need it most." Similarly, the Vera Institute and Community Oriented Correctional Health Services recommend that even for people who have coronavirus, prisons and jails: "Designate housing areas in anticipation of the need to separate people with symptoms, as well as those with symptoms who have received a test-based diagnosis of coronavirus. Using cells designated for solitary confinement is not acceptable. Rather, separate spaces for people with coronavirus should be prepared with access to comfortable furnishings and personal belongings, a telephone, and programming, even if that programming is done via videoconference or another technology."

In direct contradiction to these health experts' recommendations, New York prisons have doubled down on the use of solitary. Prisons continue to hold people in solitary and continue to send more people to solitary, including for minor non-violent rule violations - even for trying to wear masks to protect from the virus and for refusing to wear a mask when told to. Moreover, the prisons have utilized solitary in the form of keeplock in one's own cell, SHU units, and broader lockdowns as a response to the virus, which is terrible in and of itself and also makes it less likely for people to report symptoms - at a time when such reporting is essential to stop the spread.

Solitary confinement is torture. It causes intense suffering and devastating physical and psychological harm. Contrary to the press statements of the Cuomo Administration, a new landmark report from The New York Civil Liberties Union, revealed that the use of solitary is actually increasing in the Governor's prisons. While the SHU population has modestly decreased, the number of people sentenced to Keeplock - another form of solitary - has increased by so much that it offsets the oft-reported progress (with over 38,000 total sentences to solitary last year).

Despite the fact that Black people represent only 18% of New York State's total population, Black people are 48% of people in New York State prisons, and 57% of people in solitary confinement. A 2016 New York Times investigation documented what people who have been most harmed by the prison system have known for decades, that there is a "scourge of racial bias" in New York's imposition of solitary confinement and parole release denials. Yet over three years after that investigation, Governor Cuomo has still failed to address this urgent crisis.

While Governor Cuomo has put forward proposed regulations on solitary, an analysis shows these regulations will perpetuate solitary and allow people to be held in solitary for months and years, particularly in light of past practice evidenced by NYCLU's report. The report analyzed the Governor's proposed regulations in comparison with the HALT Solitary Confinement Act and strongly endorses HALT as the way forward. Notably, the Governor's regulations would leave people in Keeplock with no time limits, one of several ways people could be held in endless solitary, along with unlimited cycling back into solitary after purported time limits and no time limits on so-called alternatives that amount to solitary by another name.

By contrast, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act would limit solitary confinement in all its forms in line with international human rights standards (including by having a 15 day limit and preventing cycling after the limit), and replace it with more humane and effective alternatives.

Thanks to efforts led by survivors of solitary and their family members, there are more than enough votes in the Legislature to pass HALT. 34 New York State Senators from Long Island to Upstate New York are officially co-sponsoring the HALT Solitary Confinement Act - a clear majority - and additional Senators have committed to vote for the bill as well. 79 New York State Assembly Members also officially co-sponsor HALT - another clear majority - and the bill passed in that house in 2018. An analysis shows HALT will save money.

Community members are calling for New York State Legislators and Governor Cuomo to pass HALT immediately. Learn more at www.nycaic.org.




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