Elected officials, prison reform advocates, host community forum

Community leaders and elected officials sounded off at a town hall in November over the issue of ending solitary confinement in state prisons, and the need for parole reform.

Frustrated by how slowly state officials are moving on the issues, the panel, which included State senators Gustavo Rivera and Luis Sepúlveda, discussed why state leaders have not yet enacted critical reforms to end solitary confinement.

Both senators have introduced legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, introduced by Sen. Sepúlveda, which seeks to end solitary confinement longer than 15 days.

Initially brought up earlier this year, the bill died before it could be voted on when the state assembly session ended in June. It will need to be reintroduced next year.

“It’s cruel, it’s torture, and we are hopefully going to start to change that permanently,” Sen. Sepúlveda said of the practice of putting some inmates in isolation up to 24 hours per day. “I think anyone who wants to argue that there’s nothing wrong with it should spend a week in solitary confinement.”

The town hall event was held at Boricua College on Washington Avenue in Morrisania and held nearly 50 activists and community-members who presented questions for the eight person panel.

The panel was cohosted by Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), an organization that works on elderly incarceration, which they define as anyone over the age of 55.

Lorene Wilson-Powell, whose 54-year-old husband is currently incarcerated at Attica Prison, has to wait outside the gates of the prison for several hours before they will allow her to enter.

“They make us line up outside the gates of the prison before dawn, and at 7 a.m. they will let us all in,” said Wilson-Powell, whose husband Darrell convinced her to join RAPP earlier this year. “We’ve been together for over five years, and it takes so long for me to just see him.”

Darrell Powell, who has served 24 years of his sentence of 99 years-to-life, is actively appealing his case.

Even after his release she intends to continue her advocacy for incarcerated people.

“It is just something I care about, we cannot forget about the other people who are still in prisons,” said Wilson-Powell.

The town hall comes only hours after news that at least four corrections officers at Rikers Island were placed on suspension after they watched Nicholas Feliciano, 18, attempt suicide in a holding cell for nearly seven minutes before intervening, according to the New York Times.

Feliciano, who was arrested for a parole violation, illustrates broader concerns the town hall organizers have about the nature of criminal justice reform, and why parole reform is necessary.

“How do you see a human suffering and you just stand there and watch them,” said a visibly upset Sen. Rivera. “Who knows what they were doing while he’s in there—they’re probably taking bets on how long he’ll survive.”

The video of the officers and the inmate at the time of the incident has not yet been released, though advocates believe the incident highlights a cruel system.

“It speaks to the broader issues of a system that is designed to inflict punishment,” said Jose Saldana, Director of RAPP. “We are addicted to punishment, and that has to be addressed.”

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