Dear Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Heastie, and Governor Cuomo:
As faith leaders across New York State, we – the undersigned – are writing to denounce the moral crisis of solitary confinement plaguing New York State, and to respectfully urge you to immediately pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, S.1623/A.2500. The current practices of solitary confinement are barbaric, unconscionable, and counter to our faith traditions, and it is critical that New York State end this torture by enacting HALT.
People from all faiths – including representatives of Catholic, evangelical Christian, mainline Protestant, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Sikh communities – have spoken out against solitary confinement in New York and across the country. These people of faith have recognized that solitary confinement is both a moral and a religious issue.
There are scores of passages in our faith traditions that speak about people in prison. What is evident in these passages is an attitude of solidarity with those who are in prison, regardless of the reason.
In the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God’s servant is “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” (IS. 42:1, 6-7 NIV) The Holy Qur’an and Hadith teach us that Allah created human beings with great dignity and worth. In the New Testament we read: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” (Hebrews 13:3 NIV)
Through these texts, and countless other examples, our faith traditions are telling us that people in prison must not be treated as non-persons, invisible once locked away behind high walls; that their suffering matters; and that we should be with them, visiting them so that in practice they are not isolated and cut off from humanity. Prolonged solitary confinement runs counter to all that our faith traditions teach us.
Our approach to prisons needs to reflect our religious values, not the retributive ethos that most prisons embody. People in prison do not stop being fully human, or lose their most basic human rights, when they lose their freedom.
Holding people in solitary confinement for years and decades until they become mentally and spiritually broken is immoral because it violates the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Our traditions teach us that community and fellowship are essential to our growth as persons. Solitary confinement severely restricts the ability to grow and develop spiritually and mentally through the company of others. Prolonged solitary confinement can lead to paranoia,
delusions, and other long-term negative mental effects. It severely damages people’s capacity to think critically and reform behavior. Solitary confinement does not transform people’s behavior in a positive way. We should not deny individuals the opportunity for rehabilitation by holding them in solitary confinement for months and years.
While we come at this issue from different faith perspectives, we all agree that solitary confinement is torture and it must end. Thousands of our fellow New Yorkers – our loved ones, our friends, our congregants, and others – are in solitary confinement today, and tens of thousands of people each year are subjected to the practice. They are disproportionately Black and Latinx people. Those in solitary are held 22 to 24 hours a day, with no meaningful human contact or programs, isolated even further from their families, communities, and the outside world than people in prison generally. People in New York regularly spend months and years in solitary; some people have been in solitary for decades and even more than 30 years.
Solitary confinement has long been shown to cause intense suffering and devastating physical, mental, and behavioral harm. The risks of self-harm and suicide are dramatically increased for people in solitary. As people of faith and conscience, we are morally outraged that New York continues to allow the use of solitary confinement. Action is needed now.
The entire United Nations, including the US, passed rules prohibiting solitary beyond 15 days for any person, because otherwise it amounts to torture. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would similarly include a 15-day limit on solitary and would create more humane and effective alternatives. These alternatives would make prisons and jails safer for the staff who work in these facilities, as well as for people living in prison. States that have reduced the use of solitary have seen a positive impact on safety for both incarcerated people and correction officers.
People of faith are called to bring justice, not vengeance. Vengeful punishment is beyond the bounds of justice. We are called to speak for those in our community whose voices are silenced – the poor, orphaned, and imprisoned. As people of faith, we must be advocates for justice. We are thus speaking out and calling upon you to end this torture in New York. Concerns for morality, basic human rights and decency, as well as safety, all demand that New York end this torture. The use of solitary confinement is a violation of personhood, and of our shared humanity, that cannot continue.
HALT is the comprehensive bill to address this moral crisis at this time, and we urge the Senate and Assembly to pass, and the Governor to sign, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act immediately (in its current form without its provisions watered down). We also recognize that solitary is just one component of an entire injustice and incarceration system that is harming people, families, and communities, and so we also urge you to support a whole slate of policy changes, including bills related to parole release consideration, access to higher education, voting rights for people in prison and those who have come home, the closing of brutal prisons, and more.