With Eddie Conway

Victor Pate Leads Hunger Strike for Solitary Confinement Reform in New York 

Eddie Conway talks to Pate, the statewide organizer for New York’s Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, about the demands they are making to state lawmakers to bring the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act to the floor to vote

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore. Thank you for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars.

Recently up in New York there has been a lot of activity around solitary confinement. And so I wanted to take a minute and look at what’s going on in New York. Joining us for this episode is Victor Pate, New York state organizer. He will talk to us about the New York hunger strike.

Victor, can you explain what it was you were doing in New York recently, and why?

VICTOR PATE: Yes I can. Thank you, Eddie, for having me. And first and foremost I’d like to thank you for the continued work that you’ve been doing, and you and your comrades, for bringing this platform and amplifying the issues of our prisons and jails across the globe.

So to get right into your question, first and foremost, I am the New York statewide organizer for the Halt Solitary campaign. That stands for humane alternative to long-term isolated confinement. And we have been advocating for the past six years for passage of a bill that’s called HALT. And our particular bill is addressing implementation in prisons, state prisons, and local jails of alternatives to people being placed in solitary confinement that are more humane, more rehabilitative, and more transformative; that will provide people with an alternative rather than being placed in a six by nine or six by seven cell 23 to 24 hours a day without any other human contact.

Prior to that we had been on a–we had implemented a hunger strike from June 12 to June 19. And we had been hoping to push the legislators into coming to an agreement that they would vote for the bill and that they would influence the leadership vote for the bill. And we did this in, I guess you could say, in solidarity with the people that are in our prisons and jails. And oftentimes you know as well as I know that the tool of [address] sometimes to the injustices and the abuses that happen to people in our prisons and jails are hunger strikes and work strikes. Well, we chose a hunger strike. And we did a hunger strike from June 12 through June 19, where we just did a total liquid fast, if you will. And we didn’t eat. The only thing we did was drink liquids, just to show how committed we were, and just to show how important it was that they voted for this bill and passed this bill.

And our particular bill addresses particular populations that will actually be excluded from being placed in any form of solitary confinement, and that they will be diverted to what we consider residential rehabilitative units.

EDDIE CONWAY: What does this bill–does this bill have the power to limit the amount of time New York can keep people in solitary confinement now?

VICTOR PATE: That is correct. And that’s the whole premise. That is the whole premise of the bill. And one of the core components of the bill specifically states that no one can be held in any solitary confinement past 15 days. And not only just the fact that they can’t be held in solitary confinement past 15 days. So just say, hypothetically, someone gets sanctioned for 30 days to SHU. In an incident like that, the way this HALT bill is designed is that a person would be in isolation. And after the 15 days, they have reached the maximum 15 days. They have to immediately be transferred to what we considered RRUs, residential rehabilitative units. Whereby this particular unit, with specially trained staff, specially trained officers, they would be receiving not only out of cell–more out of cell time, because we say that we’re going for at least seven hours out of cell time for seven days a week. And you know, in solitary confinement you only get one hour of break. OK. And even within that one hour you’re still in one solitary confinement cell, either outside or inside. So that’s not considered treatment services. That’s not considered out of cell time, because oftentimes people don’t even want to go out after being in solitary confinement for so long for a time. But our particular bill was 15 days. And people after 15 days must be transferred to the residential rehabilitative unit. Must be more out of cell time. Must be given treatment services. Must have an opportunity to interact with other people that are in the special unit, and must be given transformative services prior to them being reintegrated back into population and/or being discharged from the facility.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And I take my hat off to to all of you all that did this. You did it outside. You did it in support and solidarity for prisoners. That’s commendable, because a lot of times prisoners can’t do that for themselves. Tell me now what’s the next step. If they kind of, like, just shut the bill down and they gave Cuomo administrative authority to create policies that can be changed at any given time, what’s the next step for you all?

VICTOR PATE: The bill, although it didn’t pass this legislation session, it is very much still alive. Next legislative session begins January 2020. We will be going back to the legislature. We will be continuing to push for its passing, because we still retain the same amount of co-sponsors in the Senate, which was 34, which was a majority of the Senate, and 79 co-sponsors in the Assembly, which is a majority in the Assembly. So we still have that power base in terms of our co-sponsors. We still have an opportunity to get this bill passed for the next legislative session. And we are actually already on the ground and targeting our co-sponsors already, and regrouping. And we are organizing.

So the next legislative session, irregardless of the fact that our Senate leadership and our Assembly leadership struck a deal with Governor Cuomo to administer administratively implemented changes, we are not going for that. We are still looking to push forward with for the HALT bill to be implemented in the next legislative session. So we sort of are already beginning to plan what our next move is. But rest assured that we are not discouraged. Of course it’s a disappointment, but we are not discouraged by a long shot. We still have our coalition partners, our allies that are still working with us towards getting the bill passed, and we will continue to campaign and we will continue to push our legislators that they bring the bill up as soon as legislation opens in January. Or any time there’s any special session we’re still going to continue pushing for the passage of the HALT bill. So we are not stopping.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So keep me and keep us informed. Get in touch with us whenever you need to, any time there’s a change or movement in this area. We will be interested in looking at it.

VICTOR PATE: And I’d be more than happy to do that. Thank you very much for having me on. Thank you for this platform.

EDDIE CONWAY: And thanks for joining me.

VICTOR PATE: Thank you.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News.