Gov. Cuomo at a correctional facility (photo: governor's office)
On April 3, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rammed through a budget that will be devastating to New Yorkers and then on April 4 declared that the legislative session was “effectively over” for the year. Several legislators immediately pushed back.
Comments from legislators on social media ranged from “Hell no” to “King Cuomo seems confused” to “Oh cool. So now there’s just one branch of government?” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie immediately issued a statement in response, emphasizing the Assembly as a “co-equal branch of government” and stating that the session is not over and that they established a system of remote voting. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had previously stated that they “intend to continue to do our work,” that they had set up a system to do so remotely, and that the Senate and Assembly are “co-equal branches” with the Governor.
While there are many ways that the Legislature can, and must, exert its authority as in fact a co-equal branch of government and show that New York has a functioning democracy with an independent legislature, there may be none as obvious or urgent as passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, (S.1623/A.2500), which has majority support in both houses. Among other provisions, HALT would end all forms of solitary confinement beyond 15 days, in line with international standards on torture, and create more humane and effective alternatives.
Every day that the Legislature fails to enact HALT means thousands of people - overwhelmingly black and Latino people - suffering, deteriorating, and too often dying in solitary confinement. Every year that goes by without legislators having an opportunity to vote on the bill means tens of thousands of New Yorkers being locked in six-by-nine cages and tombs.
This practice of inhumane torture has gone on far too long. Solitary causes such deterioration and intense suffering that self-mutilation is a regular known outcome. Solitary is associated with increased rates of heart disease, psychosis, and death -- while people are in solitary and when they return home to the outside community. I am a solitary confinement survivor and the collateral damage from my time in solitary still affects me today.
While the United Nations has deemed any length of time in solitary as torture in some circumstances and solitary beyond 15 days as torture in any circumstances, New York regularly holds people in solitary for months and years, and sometimes for decades. In the words of some New York legislators themselves, “That is wrong. It is cruel. It is inhumane. It must stop.” “I can think of no practice more inhumane than solitary confinement.” “It has no business in the state of New York.” “What should have happened already, we are demanding a vote.” “I wanna vote for that damn bill now.”
HALT currently has 34 Senate co-sponsors (a majority is 32) and 79 Assembly co-sponsors (a majority is 76), and many additional legislators in both houses have committed to vote for the bill. A wide range of legislators -- from Long Island to Syracuse to New York City -- have been vociferously and relentlessly calling for HALT to be brought to a vote. There is not another bill in the Legislature that has this number of co-sponsors and this level of support.
Despite this widespread support and more than enough votes for passage, the bill has not yet been brought to a vote. In 2019, Governor Cuomo pushed the legislative leaders to not bring HALT to a vote and so they did not. In 2020, with all of the outcries of “pass HALT now” from legislators and community members across the state, now is the moment.
In a functioning democracy, with independent and co-equal branches of government, when a majority of legislators are ready to vote for a piece of legislation that piece of legislation must be brought to a vote, passed, and put on the Governor’s desk. It is long past time for a vote on HALT. Leadership must resume the legislative session remotely and bring HALT to a vote immediately.