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Hundreds lobby against solitary confinement

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On Monday, hundreds of activists gathered outside the Capitol in Albany to lobby in favor of a bill that would make major changes to the way that solitary confinement is used in New York's prisons and jails.

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The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act seeks to address the underlying behavioral problems that lead inmates to be placed in solitary confinement by offering increased treatment options. For inmates sentenced to more than 15 days in solitary, HALT would ensure that they receive six hours of out-of-cell programming and treatment per day in new units called residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs. Certain vulnerable populations -- such as pregnant women, inmates under 21, elderly inmates, mentally or physically handicapped inmates, and LGBTQI inmates -- would be excluded from being in solitary confinement for even one day. Instead, such populations would be referred directly to RRUs.

As Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement reports, there are approximately 4,000 men, women, and children in solitary confinement in New York's state prisons and many more in its city and county jails. Currently, Solitary Watch reports that 5 out of 6 people in solitary confinement in New York are there for non-violent rules violations, including such minor offenses as having too many stamps or talking back to an officer. Solitary confinement entails spending 22 to 24 hours per day locked in a cell approximately the size of an elevator.

Solitary confinement survivor Five Mualimm-ak told a local news channel about the torturous conditions, saying, "We're talking about human isolation. We're talking about sensory deprivation. We're talking about our God-given rights."

One of the speakers at the rally was renowned academic and activist Cornel West. He spoke passionately about issues of race in regards to mass incarceration, saying, "Everybody knows 12 percent of those on the chocolate side, 12 percent of those on the vanilla side of flying high in the friendly skies every week taking drugs, but 65 percent of the convicteds [on drug offenses] are chocolate. That just lets us know that the legacy of white supremacy is still operating in America."

Keri Blakinger is a freelance writer and prison reform activist. Follow her on Twitter @keribla or visit her blog for a steady stream of prison reform stories.

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