Before he turned his life around, Victor Pate spent 15 years, on and off, in New York State prisons on convictions of robbery and weapons possession. Roughly 2 years were spent in solitary confinement; his longest single stretch was 90 days.
In solitary, Pate said, he "began to transform" within the first week, lose touch with reality and hallucinate. He was deprived of conversation, alone for 23 hours a day. The nonviolent breach that got him isolated in the first place, he said, was a rule infraction: having too many bed sheets in his cell.
Solitary "is torture," Pate said in an interview. "It doesn't do anything to encourage a person to be better. I don't see how it can be considered rehabilitation."
Today, 22 years out of prison, Pate, 65, lives in Harlem and is an organizer for the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. CAIC's parent group, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, has targeted New York as one of about 15 states where it has a chance to minimize the use of solitary confinement.
Isolating violent prisoners is necessary, of course. But the punishment is overused, receives almost no oversight apart from the prison staff, and, according to CAIC, is disproportionately imposed on young people, African-Americans and people with mental illness. Isolation can exacerbate mental illness, and even stable people can deteriorate psychologically.
At a time when segments of society are questioning mass incarceration and moving toward rehabilitation and smoother re-entry of ex-prisoners into civilian life, New Yorkers need to take a hard look at how solitary is being used in our state.
State prisons here isolate about 4,500 people on any given day, which is more than 9 percent of the population and double the 4.4 percent national average. Many people spend months or years in solitary. Each year, hundreds are released directly from solitary to the streets.
New York agreed to some reforms in 2015, but activists say they don't go far enough.
Claire Deroche, a member of CAIC, said the group has tried for four years to pass a state law, the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT. In the last legislative session, it had 70 sponsors in the Assembly and 19 in the Senate. Even so, the bill didn't so much as move out of committee in the Assembly.
The bill would limit isolation to 15 days and move people after that to residential rehabilitation units, with therapy, support to address underlying causes of behavior, and seven hours a day out of a cell in programs or recreation. No one younger than 21 or who has a mental disability would be placed in isolation, and people headed for solitary would receive legal representation.
Deroche says she got involved with CAIC in 2012, when she learned that people with mental illness were "cruelly" being isolated. Federal prisons prohibit the use of solitary for mentally ill people, but a Bureau of Prisons report issued last month said the ban is often violated.
Deroche's commitment deepened when she realized that a correction officer, not a judge, is the official making the call to confine someone alone. There's a hearing, but according to CAIC, 95 percent of correction officer recommendations stand.
Something as minor as asking for a towel can get an inmate labeled a troublemaker, Pate says, and isolation becomes more frequent.
Activists were encouraged two years ago when the Obama administration banned solitary in federal prisons for juveniles. But the current administration in Washington is sending opposite signals around criminal justice, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions perceived as harsh on such issues.
So, activists will focus their efforts on state legislatures.