(WIVB) — One of the key advocates behind a successful state campaign to limit the number of consecutive days that inmates can be held in solitary confinement said he is befuddled by the indifference of lawmakers who know key tenets of the law are not being enforced.

Jerome Wright, co-director of the HALT Solitary campaign, said lawmakers and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) have a responsibility to ensure the one-year-old law is enforced.

The problem is, as News 4 Investigates has reported, DOCCS continues to struggle with executing key elements of the HALT Act, which received overwhelming support in 2021 from a Democrat-controlled legislature.  

Specifically, DOCCS data shows that it has held some inmates in segregated confinement longer than 15 consecutive days, which is the legal limit set by the law.

In March, a report by the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), which conducts independent prison oversight visits, found that DOCCS had held inmates in isolation for upwards of six times the legal limit.

Supporters of the law have also accused DOCCS of using solitary confinement on vulnerable populations, such as those with mental illness, and using it as punishment for conduct that is not violent or does not pose a risk to others, both of which HALT prohibits.

As a result, both The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York filed a class action lawsuit in Albany County accusing DOCCS of illegally subjecting inmates to prolonged solitary confinement.

The union that represents state correctional officers hasn’t budged from its position that the law should be repealed, citing it as a chief factor in the rising violence in the state’s 44 correctional facilities.

But lawmakers have been unwilling, so far, to do so.

In fact, just last week, a senate committee declined to recommend a bill pushed by the union to repeal the law.

The excessive use of solitary confinement, Wright said, left him scarred, and a growing body of research shows that using extreme isolation or solitary confinement as a form of punishment can worsen inmates’ mental health but also cause psychosis, anxiety and other ailments, even when used for shorter periods.

As all this contention swirls, Wright said most lawmakers who supported the legislation have been silent. He spent three decades in prison for a murder conviction in the 1970s and said his longest stretch in solitary confinement exceeded two years.

“We’re supposed to be this progressive state, the beacon of liberalism in this country,” Wright said. “Show it by ending solitary confinement on your watch right now using HALT as the vehicle.”

News 4 Investigates reached out to several local lawmakers who supported the measure, including Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, Sen. Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, and Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Cheektowaga, but each of their staff members said they were busy with budget negotiations.

Representatives for Gov. Kathy Hochul, who was not governor when the law passed, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, who voted against the HALT Act, said the law has been a “disaster”, and he repeated some of the talking points that the NYS Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association has used against the legislation.

While DOCCS had no comment, Anthony Annucci, the agency’s acting commissioner, testified at a joint legislative budget hearing in February that there were almost 1,500 assaults on staff in 2022, a 25 percent increase from the prior year.

As a result, Annucci said the violence problem is DOCCS’ “No. 1 concern right now.”

“We will try everything to reduce violence,” Annucci said.

DOCCS adapting to law

The HALT Act has several components that not only control how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement, but it also restricts the types of incidents in which inmate isolation would be allowed and completely exempts vulnerable groups, such as inmates suffering from mental illnesses and those younger than 21 or older than 54.

The law also has guidelines for the conditions in an isolation cell, new reporting requirements, and requires disciplinary hearings with access to attorneys before inmates can be punished with solitary confinement for more than three consecutive days.

Finally, the law requires DOCCS to offer alternative rehabilitation programs in what are called Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU), where inmates are provided therapy, treatment, more out-of-cell time, and other services if it is determined they require more than the 15 days of solitary confinement.

A memo by DOCCS in response to CANY’s report in March states that the agency was provided one year to execute the law and that it immediately assembled a group to ensure compliance.

But in the first 30 days after the law became effective, DOCCS states that it “witnessed a considerable rise in violence in general population and more specifically, with the RRU, both in the housing area and in the classroom setting, targeting both staff and the incarcerated population.”

This created a shortage of RRU space, the memo states, and required DOCCS to create a work-a-round the law by increasing the out-of-cell time for inmates serving in solitary confinement from 4 hours to 7 hours.

In doing so, DOCCS said those inmates would no longer meet the definition of being in solitary confinement.

Michael Powers, president of NYSCOBA, said the inmate population is a much younger, more violent group, but it’s a small percentage that creates most of the problems. Powers said legislators largely ignored the union’s concerns about the legislation and some painted corrections officers as the villains.

As a result, morale is terrible and recruitment for an agency with roughly 1,000 vacancies has become increasingly more difficult.

“We straight up told [lawmakers] it wouldn’t work,” Powers said. “And we told them why it wouldn’t work. And they ignored it and they implemented this without any infrastructure, without any staffing. They increased programming through the roof, which is good, but we don’t have the resources to be able to implement it and there is the struggle.”

As for allegations that DOCCS is using solitary confinement for protected populations that should be exempt, the agency memo states that it sought advice from the state Office of Mental Health and believes that only inmates identified as “seriously mentally ill” meet the criteria set in the law.

Wright, on the other hand, compared the climate in some facilities to the dark days of the state’s correctional system in the 1970s, and said DOCCS and the union should take a hard look at the actions of their own correctional officers instead of “misrepresenting the facts.”

“Do you know how many people are totally discouraged in there because they thought we had a victory in this law, and that things would change, and nothing has changed?” Wright said.

Wright’s insinuation struck a nerve with Michael Powers, president of NYSCOBA.

“That’s ridiculous,” Powers said. “That to me is disingenuous.”

“Listen, the numbers simply don’t lie,” Powers said. “The inmate-on-inmate assaults are through the roof. Who’s oppressing who?”

Silent lawmakers

Wright said the law’s sponsor, Sen. Julia Salazar, a Democrat representing neighborhoods in Brooklyn, has remained critical of DOCCS and has been quoted saying that HALT will never be repealed because “New York will never again sanction the use of torture.”

But Wright said more lawmakers should be demanding accountability from DOCCS and the union.

Most inmates will eventually be released back into society, Wright said, and the rules established in the HALT Act for more therapeutic and rehabilitative confinement options will better prepare them for life outside of a cell.

For that very reason, Wright said more people, including lawmakers, should be outraged that DOCCS continues to struggle with adapting to the law.

“I thought what I was doing was being part of the solution and part of the solution is rehabilitating people incarcerated so that when they come out, they don’t continue to be part of the problem,” Wright said. “That’s public safety.”

NYSCOBA’s Power and Wright do agree on one thing:  In the end, lawmakers and DOCCS are ultimately responsible for solving these challenges.

“We’ve got a state legislature that simply is not listening,” Powers said. “We’ve asked to be a part of the solution. We’ve posed a violence study to the legislature. Our legislative team drafted the legislation, we had it introduced, never went anywhere. They don’t seem to want to address it.”

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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.