For three months straight, the state agency that oversees state prisons has been in violation of a law that prohibits corrections officers from locking inmates in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.
Data released by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) showed that the agency has routinely violated this law with more than half the inmates who are sent to solitary confinement as a punishment.
The data, analyzed by News 4 Investigates, showed that DOCCS was in violation of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT Act) for August, September, and October.
Over 200 inmates each month spent more than 15 days in solitary confinement, which is also called segregated confinement.
“They need to follow the law,” said Jerome Wright, a co-director of the HALT solitary confinement campaign. “Why is that so hard?”
The union that represents corrections officers and a spokesman for DOCCS told News 4 that inmate violence against staff in the state’s 44 facilities has increased about 40% since the law went into effect. The union said being able to segregate inmates is a must-have tool for corrections officers to address the violence.
“That just goes to show that without the discipline model of any kind within our correctional settings is just going to leave it wide open for individuals to commit their acts,” said Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association. “We’re working with the agency to look for ways to quell the violence and it’s just extremely difficult because there’s no discipline model.”
In addition, DOCCS said its Residential Rehabilitation Units, an alternative to solitary confinement that focuses on therapy and rehabilitation of inmates, are “now filled to near full capacity.”
DOCCS said it will create more rehabilitation units but provided no timeframe.
“DOCCS’ Central Office continuously monitors the status of incarcerated individuals housed in SHU cells and makes every effort to effect transfers as expeditiously as possible,” a spokesman said. “Timely transfer referrals are submitted, and transfers occur when appropriate space is available. DOCCS has also implemented specific policies associated with the implementation and enforcement of HALT, including Central Office review and redundancies to ensure compliance.”
Advocates of the law said there are volumes of research that showed solitary confinement leads to serious effects on physical and mental health of inmates when they spend more than a day alone in a cell. In addition, solitary confinement was found to have a disproportionate impact on Black inmates and did not make the facilities any safer, advocates said.
“The other thing that I’ll note is that also solitary has been shown to worsen violence inside of prisons and jails,” said Scott Paltrowitz, of the HALT Solitary Campaign. “If somebody’s locked in a space the size of a bathroom 24 hours a day for weeks and months at a time, and they deteriorate, they’re going to be more likely to engage in harmful behavior, not less likely.”
Solitary confinement concerns
HALT campaign leaders said solitary confinement can cause a host of problems for inmates, most of whom will eventually get released back into society.
In 2014, the American Medical Association passed a resolution that opposed the use of solitary confinement to punish juveniles and urged correctional facilities to move toward clinical and therapeutic isolation under the supervision of a doctor.
Two years later, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care deemed solitary confinement for more than 15 days as “inhumane, degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.”
Wright knows all about the problems.
After all, he spent 30 years in a state prison for a murder conviction in the late 1970s, with the longest stint in solitary confinement lasting over two years, Wright said. He said solitary confinement is also known as SHU, for Special Housing Units.
“I was tortured and traumatized,” Wright said.
“The most extreme cases that we find are people who shouldn’t be in there to begin with. The law says if you have a mental health issue, it’s only exacerbated by being in isolation. Again, why would you put somebody in there and then expect when they come out of that to be better?”
Wright said 90% of prisoners are eventually released back to society and those who spent time in solitary confinement fail more often to readapt to life outside of prison.
“When you’re treated like an animal, how are you supposed to act? When you’re treated like an animal, not just being caged but now isolated and ostracized, two of the worst things you could ever do to a human being,” Wright said.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said that before HALT passed, correctional officers had wide discretion to send inmates into solitary confinement, where they’d be isolated for 23 hours a day, even for “minor misbehavior” and for those who suffered from mental illnesses.
As a result, HALT also entirely prohibits the use of solitary confinement for any inmates with chronic mental health issues and physical disabilities, pregnant women, and anyone age 21 and younger or 55 and older.
In addition, HALT requires DOCCS to use alternative measures, including Residential Rehabilitation Units that provide at least six hours per day of out-of-cell therapy, support and programs to address the root of the problem.
“From my experience, that is often not happening across the state,” Paltrowitz said.
In addition, Paltrowitz said there is evidence of prison staff members putting inmates with disabilities in solitary confinement
Powers accused advocates of exaggerating with descriptions of conditions that one might find on a Hollywood set, but not in any state prison.
“I can tell you right here and now, those units aren’t portrayed the way they are,” Powers said. “And to say that these tortuous things are happening, I don’t hear them. Bad things happen, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not seeing tortuous conditions and this, that, and the other thing.”
“This is not some fictional thing,” Paltrowitz said. “This is people on a daily basis suffering torment and torture.”
Violence up & injuries more severe
There is no doubt that violence has increased at the state’s 44 facilities.
Powers said corrections officers have had urine, feces and blood thrown at them. Some have been rendered unconscious by an inmate attack or sent to hospitals with serious injuries. Not only is violence up, but the types of injuries that corrections officers are sustaining appear to be more severe.
DOCCS categorizes injuries in four ways: minor, moderate, serious and severe.
From April 1 through Aug. 31, DOCCS recorded 1,342 assaults.
At least 1,200 staff members got injured. Of those, 89 were categorized as moderate, serious or severe, the data showed.
Prior to HALT passing, DOCCS recorded 826 staff members being injured, with 45 being categorized as moderate, serious or severe.
The union shared photographs of some of the injured corrections officers, including one whose face was slashed from the side of his mouth to his ear.
As a result, Powers said the union continues to demand that lawmakers repeal HALT.
“But we’re willing to work with the agency, with the sponsors of the legislation, and that’s another aspect as well,” Powers said. “They never once reached out to us in the four years that they’ve been pushing to get HALT enacted. We’ve asked … we just get shot down.”
A lawsuit by the union that sought to stop the HALT law argued that efforts to limit the use of solitary confinement would “diminish accountability for those inmates who commit violent acts while in prison, and create a dangerous living and working environment by permitting those inmates who have shown a propensity to violently assault peaceful incarcerated individuals and/or State employees to be placed in congregate setting where they are easily able to repeat such violent acts.”
U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino shot down the union’s concerns in her June decision, stating that the concerns about increase of violence “is no more than conjecture.”
“The allegation that the HALT Act will lead to an overall higher level of violence in New York prisons is too speculative,” D’Agostino wrote. “The impact on the overall level of violence in New York prisons because of solitary confinement reform simply cannot be predicted by this Court.”
In addition, D’Agonstino said the union offered a study that showed violence has been increasing since 2012, well before HALT was passed and four years before a settlement with the NYCLU resulted in reductions in solitary confinement, which “offers little persuasive value.”
Powers said that DOCCS data ultimately has shown that violence increased in the months after HALT went into effect and questioned whether the judge had a “full grasp” of the issue.
“If she were to walk through a couple of facilities and talk to the staff, she’d have a better understanding of that,” Powers said.
Resolution nowhere in sight
The state legislature, which is led by Democrats, does not appear willing to appease the union by repealing HALT.
In some instances, legislators and the union have engaged in bitter disputes.
Senator Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, a supporter of the HALT law and chairwoman of the state Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee, tweeted on Oct. 17 that the union parked a box truck with “anti-HALT propaganda” outside her district office.
“But here’s the strange part: We know @NYSDOCCS is not even actually implementing the HALT law,” she tweeted.
Salazar’s office did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, but her tweets that day show a growing rift between some lawmakers and the union that represents the state’s 16,700 corrections officers.
“So the question is: Why is NYSCOPBA claiming HALT is causing them problems when they are, in fact, refusing to implement HALT?”
Those tweets resulted in a rebuke by Powers, the union’s president, who said DOCCS is responsible for implementing the new rules, not the union.
“For an elected official to publicly state that the men and women of NYSCOPBA are liars is outrageous and requires an immediate public apology,” Powers said. “Sadly though, it tracks with other supporters of the HALT Act like Senator Salazar’s colleague, NYS Senator Luis Sepulveda, who in August of this year made a public statement in the media which insinuated that officers are inflating state data by counting an inmate ‘blowing too hard in the direction of an officer’ as assault. I assure you, both of these elected officials couldn’t be more detached from reality.”
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.