Bill banning solitary confinement for inmates under 21 moves forward in New York State

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The New York State Assembly passed a bill today banning solitary confinement for all inmates under 21. It would be the first such ban of any U.S. state if it is enacted into law.

The bill would also ban solitary confinement for all inmates with a mental illness or a developmental disability, and restrict solitary confinement for all inmates to the “minimum period necessary for the maintenance of order or discipline.”

It was written in response to a 2014 United Nations report that called on the state to end prolonged solitary confinement, said Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, the bill’s sponsor.


“When the UN comes to New York and says what we’re doing violates their rules against torture, we ought to do something about that,” O’Donnell told Fusion. “It’s time for our society to step up and acknowledge what the reality is.”

The bill passed just a week and a half after the suicide of Kalief Browder, a teenage inmate at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail who spent three years in jail without being convicted of a crime—about two years of that in solitary confinement. Browder’s story, the the subject of a profile in The New Yorker, attracted national attention.

New York City officials banned solitary for all inmates 21 and younger under a plan approved in January which will fully go into effect by next year and covers Rikers Island.

Other states have previously passed laws banning solitary for inmates under the age of 18 or mentally ill inmates. In fact, more states passed solitary confinement reforms in 2014 than in the previous 16 years, The Marshall Project reported.


“I think it’s a significant step toward eliminating solitary for everyone,” Jean Casella, a co-director with the advocacy group Solitary Watch, told Fusion, referring to the New York bill. No other state has raised the minimum age to 21, she said.

But she said the bill left it up to prison officials to determine how long constitutes the “minimum period necessary for the maintenance of order or discipline.”


“That leaves quite a lot of power in the hands of the institutions to decide what those periods are,” Casella said. “In general, the reforms we’ve seen so far have been very limited to specific groups rather than taking a broader view of solitary confinement as torture and imposing specific time limits.”

A separate bill in the state legislature which has not yet passed would place specific time limits on the practice.


The New York state legislature is ending its session this week, but O’Donnell said he will push for approval in the Senate soon after the session starts up again in January. The bill might have more trouble passing the Republican-controlled Senate, and Governor Andrew Cuomo has not said whether he supports it.

The final vote count for and against the bill in the Assembly will not be available until tomorrow, O’Donnell said.


Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.