(WIVB) — Supporters of the HALT Act, which set limits on how long inmates spend in solitary confinement in jails and prisons, aren’t exactly celebrating the one-year anniversary.

Instead, they are litigating a class action lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, the two nonprofits behind the class action lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Albany County, said DOCCS continues “flouting” key elements of the law, including how long an inmate can be held in solitary confinement.

In addition, the lawsuit accuses DOCCS of adopting a rule that automatically places inmates in confinement without the required written findings that the conduct was heinous and destructive.

“What we’re seeing across the state is that the prison system, DOCCS, is routinely imposing segregation exceeding the limits that HALT allows,” said Antony Gemmell, the director of detention litigation for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

As a result, the lawsuit challenges “entrenched practices” within DOCCS that subject thousands of inmates to “unlawfully prolonged periods of segregation and other disciplinary confinement in open defiance of the Legislature’s express will.”

A growing body of research and evidence has found that using extreme isolation as a form of punishment against inmates can worsen mental and physical health, but also cause psychosis, anxiety, depression, and other ailments.

In 2021, the New York legislature passed the HALT Act to set limits on who could be placed in solitary confinement and for how long, among other changes, which went into effect a year later in April 2022.

Specifically, the law caps solitary confinement to 17 hours per day for 15 consecutive days or 20 days in a 60-day period, and completely bans the use of it on vulnerable populations, such as inmates 21 years old or younger, pregnant women, and those with disabilities.

In October last year, News 4 Investigates reported how DOCCS’s state prisons were routinely violating the 15-day cap.

A report in March by the Correctional Association of New York, which conducts independent prison oversight visits, concluded that the problem persisted through this year, with DOCCS holding inmates in isolation for upwards of six-times the legal limit.

Meanwhile, the state union that represents correctional officers continues to call for a repeal of the HALT Act.

New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers said the HALT Act has resulted in significant increases in prison violence, which has “made the prison environment extremely dangerous” for both staff and inmates.

DOCCS declined to comment on the lawsuit, but a memo by the agency states that the department has “made significant strides in reducing its use of segregated confinement…” but was given one year to plan, train for and execute the law.

As a result, DOCCS said prison officials moved quickly to develop a system that would ensure compliance with the law, but they encountered challenges within the first month that forced them to develop ways to work around them.

“DOCCS agrees with the fundamental principles behind the HALT law to limit the amount of time people spend in segregated confinement and provide individuals with meaningful out-of-cell trauma informed therapeutic programming that addresses underlying causes of the problematic behavior,” the DOCCS memo said.

But if his employees and inmates do not feel safe, “staff will not deliver the program in the manner intended and incarcerated individuals will not participate or attend these meaningful programs,” according to the DOCCS memo, which included letters he said were written by correctional officers and inmates on the negative impacts the law has had on them.

Lawsuit: Two inmates collectively sentenced to 850 days in confinement

Two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Fuquan Fields and Luis Garcia, alleged that they served 120 days and 730 days respectively in segregated confinement in violation of the HALT Act.

Fields was sentenced in 2007 in Erie County to a maximum sentence of 30 years and six months in prison for attacking his wife, witness intimidation and tampering, forging documents and criminal contempt. His earliest release date is July 23, 2032.

The lawsuit states that correctional officers declined Field’s request to use the bathroom while he was in restraints on suicide watch at another prison. Two hours later, Fields exposed himself and urinated on the floor and allegedly threw “wet looking sugar packets” at a correctional officer.

On Jan. 27, a hearing officer sentenced Fields to 180 days of confinement but the lawsuit states that the disposition neither included a determination that any of the alleged conduct met the criteria of state law nor any written determination by DOCCS that the alleged conduct was heinous and destructive, both of which the law requires.

Fields appealed and his sentence was reduced to 120 hours of confinement in an RRU.

Garcia is serving a maximum of 25 years in prison at Five Points correctional facility in Romulus for 1st degree burglary and robbery. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office said law enforcement identified Garcia as a member of the Bloods gang.

The lawsuit states that Garcia was an inmate at a different prison in a mental health unit, when he was accused of throwing an “unknown brown feces smelling liquid” that hit two officers. He was charged with two counts of assault on staff and two counts of committing an unhygienic act, before being transferred to Elmira Correctional Facility on suicide watch.

On Oct 5, 2022, a hearing officer found Garcia guilty of all charges and sentenced him to 730 days of confinement. But like Fields, the lawsuit states that the disposition lacked the required submissions by the hearing officer and DOCCS.

In addition, the lawsuit states that both inmates had documented mental health issues.

The DOCCS memo states that “some entities have misinterpreted the data and have asserted that we are placing people in segregated confinement for conduct that does not rise to the level of segregated confinement.”

Specifically, DOCCS said it took steps to ensure that it clearly understood which inmates could not be placed in confinement because they meet the criteria for “special population.”

The memo adds that DOCCS also consulted with the state Office of Mental health, who he said confirmed DOCCS position that only inmates identified as “seriously mentally ill” meet the criteria.

In addition, DOCCS said that the rise in violence resulted in facilities not having enough Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs), which are used for inmates once they serve more than 15 days in confinement.

As a work-a-round, DOCCS directed all superintendents to offer inmates who spent more than 15 days in confinement a total of seven hours outside of the cell instead of the four hours that the law requires. In doing so, DOCCS said the inmate no longer would meet the definition of being in segregated confinement.

“As of February of 2023, DOCCS has sufficient capacity to comply with the no more than 15-days of segregated confinement requirement, however, if capacity becomes an issue in the future, we will keep the previously described mitigation efforts in place,” according to the memo.

The union, on the other hand, is sticking to its argument that the surge in prison violence can be directly correlated with the changes made by the HALT Act.

Union wants HALT repealed

On Friday, NYSCOPBA officials said prison violence increased almost 40% for the month that HALT went into effect.

That level of violence has remained consistent, too, the union said.

NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers said that since HALT went into effect in April 2022, there has been a 33% increase in overall violence in state prisons.

The union has said that segregating inmates is an effective tool to combat prison violence, but by limiting its use, some inmates are more likely to commit acts of violence.

In June 2022, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the union’s lawsuit that attempted to reverse the HALT Act, stating that the upward trend in violence preceded the Act, therefore the union’s argument “offers little persuasive value.”

A report released last month by The Correctional Association of New York, which conducts independent prison oversight visits, also took aim at the union’s assessment that the law has sparked more prison violence by using “an inaccurate perception that HALT has eliminated consequences for violent behavior.”

CANY said the majority of inmates and state staff members it interviewed for the report did not raise any safety concerns stemming from HALT. But some inmates did have concerns about retaliation and false complaints since the advent of HALT.

As for the increase in violence, CANY said the rise in violence is a decade-long trend long before the HALT Act went into effect.  Also, CANY said the majority of violence that has occurred since the HALT Act did not involve serious injuries.

“However, it is important to consider that over 98% of staff involved in all reported assaults on staff since HALT went into effect between April and November 2022 had either no injury (73%) or minor injury (25%),” the report stated.

The DOCCS memo, however, alleges CANY’s report “misrepresents the data” and “minimizes the extent of the increase in injuries between 2021 and 2022.”

While state prisons have seen a rise in violence over the past several years, the DOCCS memo states that what CANY’s report fails to consider is “that the historical increases were marginal, whereas the increases experienced since the passage of HALT were significant.”

As the lawsuit winds its way through court, CANY has urged lawmakers to take additional measures to ensure DOCCS complies with the HALT Act.

“For the health, well-being, and safety of the people who are incarcerated as well as staff, it is imperative that DOCCS make significant adjustments in its approach to implementing the HALT Law to demonstrate that it is possible and beneficial to decrease punishment and isolation while simultaneously increasing safety and wellness of both incarcerated people and staff,” CANY’s report concluded.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.

Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.