Violations of solitary confinement rules remain after law changed

ALBANY — A year after New York enacted laws to prevent the prolonged solitary confinement of inmates — a practice that had long been viewed as torture — violations of the new standards are occurring and the state has apparently struggled to implement the policy changes that had been in place for decades.

A report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent organization authorized to monitor prison conditions and report its findings publicly, found there has been “numerous departures from basic adherence” to the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), which took effect last year after being signed into law in March 2021 by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The association’s report described HALT as “a sea change in the philosophical underpinnings of behavior management in prisons,” but noted its implemenation has met fierce resistance from some state prison staffers who have linked new desegregation policies to an increase in violence. But the report also noted there are Department of Corrections and Community Supervision workers who have embraced the changes while acknowledging the prison system had relied too heavily in the past on solitary confinement.

Still, the report, which examined the implementation of the law during a nine-month period last year, found that some inmates are being held in isolation in special housing units for “six times the legal limit,” and that individuals whose backgrounds prohibit them from being placed in segregation are still being held there. That restricted population includes those aged 21 or younger and 55 or older, or who suffer from mental, medical or physical disabilities.

The report also found that individuals being held in “residential rehabilitative units,” transitional disciplinary units where they are entitled to six hours of “out of cell” programming and an additional hour of recreation, are often not receiving that assistance — or it’s being delivered while they are in restraints without an evaluation, which is prohibited.

Inmates also are being held in special housing units and residential rehabiliative units for reasons not allowed under the law and many are being held in “pre-hearing confinement” for alleged infractions without access to meaningful representation, according to the correctional association.

The association’s report recommends, among myriad other improvements, that the corrections department “publicly articulate explanations for (its) lack of adherence to or full implementation of each of HALT’s requirements and outline steps that can be taken now to follow the law’s requirements.”

In response to the association’s report, the corrections department provided a written response noting it has made “significant strides” in reducing the use of segregated confinement dating to 2014, and that it was given a one-year window after Cuomo signed the law to implement the changes reducing the maximum number of days an inmate could be held in a special-housing unit to 15 days.

“In the first 30 days of HALT being effective, DOCCS witnessed a considerable rise in violence in general population and more specifically, within the (residential rehabilitative units), both in the housing area and in the classroom setting, targeting both staff and the incarcerated population,” the agency said in its response. “The increase in violence in both general population and (residential rehabilitative units) resulted in DOCCS not having enough … capacity to transfer incarcerated individuals who received a disciplinary confinement sanction in excess of 15 days after they served 15 days in segregated confinement.”

The agency also increased the “out of cell” time for inmates held in segregated units for more than 15 days to seven hours per day, which resulted in their classification not being listed as “segregated confinement.” To address the shortage of residential rehabilitative units, the department built more of those units across the state to address the uptick in violence officials contend has been requiring more inmates to be housed in the special units.

“While the report points out that DOCCS has seen an increase in violence over the past several years, the report fails to recognize that the historical increases were marginal, whereas the increases experienced since the passage of HALT were significant,” the department said in its response. “This was evidenced by significant increases in violence against staff and other incarcerated individuals and the rate of assault and the injuries sustained between 2021 and 2022, which coincides with the passage of HALT.”

The correctional association recommended the department “build on its success in operating programs for incarcerated people by increasing the level of programming systemwide, including by offering rehabilitative programs toward the beginning rather than toward the end of an individual’s sentence … expanding college, peer-led, and volunteerled programs; implementing more opportunities for incentives; and seek external support to resolve recruitment challenges for program and clinical staff.”

The report also calls on DOCCS to be more transparent in how it is assessing and dealing with prison violence, including releasing more data. The association also encouraged the department to “engage research partners to study causes of violence and mechanisms for reducing violence and increasing safety; the results of these studies should be made public and should lead to partnerships with experts on violence reduction to implement evidence-based, model interventions.”

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which lost a federal court case it filed last year that sought to overturn HALT, had argued that the policies prohibiting isolating violent inmates has endangered its members. To buttress its arguments, the union cited statistics that it said showed prison violence surged between 2012 and 2020, a time period during which segregation also had been reduced through a court case settled with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But U.S. District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino, in a decision dismissing the union’s lawsuit nine months ago, called the union’s assertion that the HALT Act would increase prison violence “too speculative” and “no more than conjecture.”

“The impact on the overall level of violence in New York prisons because of solitary confinement reform simply cannot be predicted by this court,” D’Agostino wrote. “Crime rates are affected by numerous factors. Violence in New York prisons could decrease or stay the same because of the HALT Act.”

The use of solitary confinement dates back centuries and has been known for its devastating physical and mental health effects.

“In 1890, the United States Supreme Court described the impact of segregated confinement … writing that ‘a considerable number of the (people in segregated confinement) fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community,” the association’s report states.

The group noted that more recently, studies have shown that segregated confinement can cause “psychosis, anxiety, depression and even a particular ‘solitary confinement syndrome.'”

The correctional association’s report, which seeks to encourage the continued improvement of incarcerated settings, recommends the corrections department increase and diversify its training and professional development, and “engage with external experts in solutions that build workforce morale; and to continue to develop innovative recruitment strategies and partnerships to adequately staff facilities, particularly in medical and program areas.”

The group also is urging the Legislature to pass laws that create incentives for incarcerated people to engage in more activities that lead to “opportunities for release, including expanded parole release, sentencing credits, and earned time off.”

State Sen. Julia Salazar, who chairs the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, responded to the report Wednesday and said the corrections department “must stop sending people to solitary and alternative units for minor rule violations, and implement real alternatives with effective out-of-cell group programming.”

“It is beyond disturbing that the state prisons, like many local jails, are systemically violating nearly every component of the HALT Solitary Confinement Law and continuing to send people — disproportionately Black people — to solitary confinement for weeks and even months at a time,” said Salazar, D-Brooklyn.

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