That’s the image advocates painted at a recent rally in Astoria to reform solitary confinement . Led by members of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), the demonstration was part of a series of actions held on the 23rd of every month to recognize the 23 hours a day that a person spends in isolation.
Multiple speakers shared their stories of the squalid conditions inside the cells and the psychological damage they suffered. Victor Pate, a 64-year-old Harlem native who emceed the rally, spent a total of 15 years in prison, including several stints in solitary confinement, the longest lasting four months.
“It was a lonely, lonely experience. Oftentimes, I wondered whether what I was experiencing was real or not,” Pate said. “I found myself talking to myself, making up things in my mind that I didn’t know or wasn’t sure existed. I had to create another world within another world in order for me to survive.”
Pate called it a traumatic experience that had an adverse effect once he came out of prison. He said he didn’t want to be around or talk to people. He became more paranoid and distrusting, always looking around when he was with other people.
According to Pate, that’s a common issue for “survivors,” a term he uses to describe people who have come out of solitary confinement.
“For the most part, when people go into solitary confinement, the psychological damages that occur leaves a person with psychological and mental health issues,” he said. “Some people never come back from that. It’s difficult for them to function in society.”
Pate attributed part of the damage to the lack of psychological and mental health services provided during and after a survivor’s time in isolation. He said many are released back into the general population in difficult conditions, which often leads them right back to jail.
“The transition process for people coming home, unless you have family members and a place to stay, is traumatic,” he said. “More likely than not, you wind up in a shelter, which is another contained, controlled environment. I found myself wanting to be back in prison because to me, being in prison was easier than having to navigate being out on my own, having to get up in the morning, go out and look for a job, feed myself and generally survive.”
That’s why Pate advocates for counseling prior to and after a person’s release to help ease the transition back into society. He said he wants survivors to be prepared for re-entry so they’re not “left to their own devices,” during their time of freedom. He called it a cycle that cannot be broken without the proper resources.
“If you do not treat people humanely, they will not come out and act humanely,” he said. “If prisons are about rehabilitation, then you need to have real services in place to help people rehabilitate themselves.”
Pate also took issue with the criteria corrections officers used to place people in solitary confinement. He said he often got into trouble for small infractions like stepping over a line or having too many slices of bread in a cell.
“You could get in trouble for the most minuscule of things,” he said. “Whatever they say is a criteria is a criteria.”
According to Pate, officers most commonly placed people in isolation for what he called the “catch-all” rule: disobeying a direct order. He said anything you do could be considered disobeying an order.
“If you’re an officer and I happen to eyeball you, which is a no-no, that could be considered disobeying a direct order,” he said. “And here’s the key, there was never any particular administrative oversight.”
CAIC is advocating for the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, a piece of legislation that is currently being considered by the two chambers of the state legislature. The bill is still in committee for both the Assembly and State Senate.
The act, if passed and signed into law, would dramatically change the rules and conditions of solitary confinement. It would prohibit the segregation of vulnerable populations, including young and elderly people, people with physical or mental disabilities, pregnant women and new mothers and members of the LGBT community.
The law would place a limit to the amount of time a person can spend in isolation to 15 consecutive days and 20 total days in a 60-day period. After that, a person must be sent to a secure rehabilitation center to receive services.
According to CAIC, more than 5,000 New Yorkers have been through solitary confinement, and the state’s prison population in solitary is approximately double the national average.
The legislation would also enhance the conditions within confinement, demanding more out-of-cell time and recreation, access to services and a ban on orders that deprive people of basic necessities, including restricted diets.
The bill would create more protections, such as legal representation, for those who want to challenge their placement. It would require periodic reviews for release based on progress and public reporting of uses of segregation and rehabilitation services.
According to the main authors of the bill, State Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry of Queens, other states that have instituted similar reforms have seen “positive benefits” in terms of safety and decreased violence.
They said on any given day, nearly 4,000 people, “disproportionately people of color,” including 1,000 in New York City, are segregated routinely for long periods of time.
“Despite claims that segregated confinement is used in response to the most violent behavior, five out of six disciplinary infractions that result in Special Housing Units (SHU) time in New York prisons are for non-violent conduct,” the bill reads.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act has garnered some support in Albany, including more than 60 sponsors in the Assembly and nearly 20 state senators, including State Senator Michael Gianaris.
Gianaris agrees that people who break the law should be punished, which is the way society maintains order. However, he said the purpose of jail is for people to rehabilitate and emerge as productive members of society, not to come out “worse than when you went in.”
“One thing we know from numerous studies is that solitary confinement, especially when it’s abused and overused, makes people worse, not better,” Gianaris said. “Then what you’re doing is putting someone away and putting them back in society in a worse position than when they went in in the first place. It’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing.”
He called the HALT bill a “responsible approach” to reforming solitary confinement. He highlighted the importance of the rehabilitation resources and limiting certain vulnerable populations from entering isolation.
Gianaris also sponsored a bill that would eliminate bail because it has been abused.
He pointed to the story of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old Bronx man who was arrested at the age of 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, though the case was eventually dismissed. Because Browder couldn’t afford the $3,500 bail, he spent three years at Riker’s Island and spent considerable time in solitary confinement.
Although he was eventually released, the psychological damage was done. Browder committed suicide in June 2015. His story was later documented and shared by The New Yorker magazine, galvanizing activists to call for change.
“It’s a serious problem where they’re spending years in jail before they’re even convicted because they don’t have the money to get themselves out,” Gianaris said.
Gianaris acknowledged that although the HALT bill is steadily winning support, it’s not enough to pass either chamber.
“We need to get to a point where people see it’s a problem,” he said. “We’ll keep working at it because it’s important.”
One strategy CAIC started employing to spread awareness about the conditions of solitary confinement is virtual reality. Using an app called “6x9,” users are immersed in a virtual solitary cell while narrators speak about their experiences from their different viewpoints.
The app is based off a documentary film created by the British newspaper The Guardian that tells the story of six people who went through solitary confinement, including Pate.
“You hear from those of us who have been in solitary confinement. We’re narrating, telling you what’s going through our minds at that time,” Pate said. “It’s very graphic and sad, but it’s also informative. We’re hoping that it will be empowering so people who have an opportunity to look at this will become outraged and become involved.”
CAIC is also sharing testimonies from former prisoners. One of the many speakers at Thursday’s rally was Johnny Perez, a 37-year-old man from the Bronx who spent a total of three years in solitary confinement.
Perez was sentenced to 15 years in prison for first-degree robbery when he was 21 years old. He completed 13 years in prison, and was sent to solitary confinement for offenses like testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.
Spending up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, Perez said he faced many hardships, including hunger due to erratic meal schedules. He would often have his last meal of the day at 4:30 p.m. It all led to a negative impact on his mental health.
“I contemplated suicide, I spoke to myself a lot, I counted the bricks on the wall,” Perez said. “I punched the wall at different times. I fantasized a lot, cried a lot, slept a lot.”
He’s been out of prison for two nears now, but Perez said he’s still facing some of the effects of isolation. He said he hates crowded spaces and always keeps the door open. He shuns physical contact and sometimes even wakes up still thinking he’s inside a cell.
“It was hard and it still is,” he said. “All of this was more intense when I was first released.”
Now that he’s out for good, he’s using his experience to change the system. Perez is currently a safe re-entry advocate for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, a platform he doesn't take lightly.
He not only advocates for state legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, but also shares his message with a national audience. He has written of his experiences for publications like Ebony, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.
“This is not a black or white, Republican or Democratic issue,” Perez said. “This is a human issue. It’s a moral issue.”
Perez expressed optimism that eventually the HALT bill will pass. He said many lawmakers don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and if they continue advocating, more legislators will know about the damage isolation has done to many people like Kalief Browder.
“I was angry about the fact that it takes someone to lose their life in order for people to become acquainted with some of these issues,” he said. “Advocates know that what happened to Kalief happens all over this country damn near every day in some way, shape or form.”
He said he’s unsure if the goal of the campaign to end solitary confinement was within reach, but said they’re closer today than they were a year ago. He pointed to the national attention it has received from President Barack Obama and even Pope Francis, and hopes more and more people will take notice.
“I’m also a father, so I imagine a society in which my child can be free from harm and torture from the same people who have sworn to protect them. I still wonder, are we there yet?” Perez said. “We feel like the needle is moving forward and we’re just trying to push it even more.”