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Movement in NY Aims to Limit Use of Solitary Confinement in Prisons

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There is a movement underway in New York to limit the use of solitary confinement in prisons, as some critics say the practice all but amounts to torture. NY1's Zack Fink filed the following report.

On any given day in New York State, there are roughly 4,000 inmates being held in solitary confinement. That kind of sensory deprivation can cause long-term psychological damage, particularly to those who suffer even mild forms of mental illness.

Five Mualimm-ak spent the better part of five years in solitary.

"The system is tortuous. Twenty-three hours a day, seven days a week for months on end," Mualimm-ak said. "If everyone can imagine living your life for year upon year end in a space the size of your bathroom."

This week, advocates from all over the state were at the Capitol urging broader prison reforms. The rally drew celebrity academic Cornel West.

"I think in the last 30 years, there's been a bipartisan agreement on not coming to terms with the new Jim Crow, not coming to terms with what it means to have 60 percent of those incarcerated for soft drugs," West said.

Other reforms being sought include changes to the current system of parole.

"It definitely keeps people who have shown, who have proven that they are community-ready and deserving of a second chance," said Sheila Rule of the Riverside Church Prison Ministry.

The strongest reform that advocates are hoping will pass this year are bills limiting the use of solitary confinement.

The movement to restrict solitary confinement is supported by the New York State Bar Association, but it's broader than just New York State. A United Nations expert on torture has urged nations to limit its use, as has the U.S. Department of Justice.

The state Department of Corrections is currently reviewing is practices and policies governing solitary confinement.

Two bills are expected to clear the Assembly corrections committee next week. One eliminates solitary for inmates under 21. The other bans its use for women who are pregnant.

However, the legislation faces an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

"I don't think when we talk about prisons, this ought be priority number one," said Assemblyman Joe Borelli of Staten Island. "The truth is, solitary and measures like that are a tool to make sure inmates stay in line."

Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed more education programs for prison inmates. The idea was quickly dropped after an outcry from Republicans.

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