Paralyzed Brooklyn man lobbies governor to end solitary confinement

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BROOKLYN — The clock was ticking Friday for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make a decision about a bill passed by the New York State Assembly and Senate that would place limits on the amount of time prisoners can spend in solitary confinement.

The bill is called HALT, which stands for Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act. If passed, no state inmate could be placed in isolation for more than 15 days.

Jose Vega, a paralyzed Brooklyn man who went to prison for more than 23 years in a wheelchair, once spent nearly a year in ‘the box.” He recalled his initial experience.

“The first time I went to solitary was at Shawangunk Correctional,” Vega told PIX11 News. “They took my wheelchair from me, and they forced me to stay in bed for three days, without no medical equipment, and I was sitting in my human waste for three days.”

Vega told PIX11 News he was paralyzed from the chest down in 1992 by a gunshot. He was convicted in a 1994 murder case. Hesaid he bucked heads with correction officers in state prison, because he was a vocal advocate for disabled inmates. He received the year in solitary after an incident at Green Haven Correctional, after officers searched his cell and said they found $600 in cash.

Another former inmate, Jerome Wright, spent more than 30 years in prison and said he once received a five year sentence to solitary. Wright said correction officers had jumped him and badly assaulted him, after he testified at a hearing about alleged racist activity at Elmira Correctional. He said he defended himself against the attack at Wende Correctional.

“We don’t talk about the people who die spiritually” in solitary, Wright said, noting that it involves 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine foot cell.
He said a judge later ruled that he did not start the attack that left him with five years in solitary.

The sentence was cut to two and a half years.  

“As a survivor, I’m telling you that it has no socially redeeming value,” Wright said. “A Department of Correction that’s supposed to return people to the community better than they went in puts people in cages and treats them like animals.”

After sending the bill to Gov. Cuomo in the executive chamber, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins wrote, “prolonged segregated confinement can cause permanent harms and does not properly address the root causes that lead to the punishment. These reforms are morally right, fiscally responsible, and will improve outcomes at jails and prisons.”

Yet the President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association in New York City could not disagree more.  

“At a time when inmate assaults against New York City Correction Officers are up 23% and stabbings and slashings continue to rise in our jails, Albany legislators passed the HALT Bill, which will prevent us from separating violent offenders from non-violent offenders,” said Benny Boscio in a statement. The governor should put safety first and refuse to sign this reckless piece of legislation that is only going to further jeopardize the lives of our essential Correction Officers. Enough is enough!”

Prisoner advocates are lobbying hard to get attention for the bill. Cuomo has 10 days to make a decision, excluding Sunday. He can sign it or veto it. If he takes no action, the bill will become law.

“Black and brown people, by almost 60%, are in solitary confinement,” Jerome Wright said. “I have police officers who say, ‘Look, I didn’t lock somebody up to put them in there.'”

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