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NY correction officers sue to overturn new HALT solitary confinement law

New York NOW

A union representing correction officers in New York filed a federal lawsuit Monday to overturn the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT, a new law passed in March to limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association claimed in the suit that the new law violates the federal civil rights of its members.

The lawsuit is hinged on the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which the union argues should guarantee public employees, like their members, due process to be free from dangerous conditions created by the state.

“Plaintiffs enjoy the right to be free from Defendants’ laws, rules, regulations, policies, practices and/or customs that create an unreasonable risk of bodily harm or death from third parties, like violent incarcerated individuals,” the lawsuit reads. “But this ‘reform’ shows a deliberate and callous indifference to the lives and safety of Correction Officers, Correction Sergeants and peaceful incarcerated individuals in the general population of State prisons that shocks the contemporary conscience.”

The HALT Act is set to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York’s state prisons by both reducing the amount of time someone can spend under the sanction, and mandating new ways those individuals have to be treated. It takes effect next April.

Among the highlights of the law are a 15-day cap on how much time someone can spend in solitary and the creation of new, isolated rehabilitation units to transition individuals back to the general population through specialized services. 

The intention of the law, according to its supporters and lawmakers who voted for it, is to protect the mental and physical health of incarcerated individuals by shifting services in prisons from a punitive mindset to a more rehabilitative model.

NYSCOPBA President Mike Powers said 15 days isn’t enough time for incarcerated individuals to “cool off” after an incident that lands them in solitary, and that the public perception of the sanction doesn’t match up with the reality inside state prisons.

Incarcerated individuals sent to solitary have access to the same services offered to the general population while they’re isolated from others, Powers said.

“Solitary confinement doesn’t exist in reality, and by definition, it doesn’t exist in this state or any state in the country,” Powers said. “When you’re dealing with individuals that don’t subscribe or get along in the rehabilitation system, it’s not different than society.”

The new law will also, among other things, ban the use of solitary confinement for pregnant individuals, those living with certain disabilities, and anyone under the age of 22 and older than 54. 

Chris Moreau, NYSCOPBA’s vice president for the Mid-Hudson region, said they’re particularly concerned about the law’s ban on solitary confinement for ages 18-21.

“Anyone that works in a prison knows that 18 to 21 is one of the most volatile age groups,” Moreau said. “It takes the secure housing units off the table completely for those individuals, so that is probably our most pressing [issue] after the 15-day timeframe.”

Both Powers and Moreau also claimed that violent incidents within state prisons have been on the rise over the last decade, and that preventing officers from using more punitive measures would only exacerbate that trend.

But supporters of the HALT Act pushed back on that point in a statement responding to the lawsuit Monday. Jerome Wright, a statewide organizer with the #HALTSolitary Campaign, said the new law will lead to better outcomes for both officers and inmates.

“The HALT Solitary Confinement Act will protect people from the terrible harms of long-term solitary, including severe psychosis and suicide, while still allowing the Department to separate people for extended periods of time in secure environments with therapeutic programming proven to actually address dangerous behaviors,” Wright said.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Albany against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. 

In a statement, DOCCS said the agency wouldn't comment on the litigation, but that any violence perpetuated by an incarcerated individual against a correction officer would be charged as a new crime, which could extend someone's sentence.

"DOCCS has a zero tolerance policy with respect violence in our facilities and pursues both disciplinary charges and criminal prosecution for any assault. A new felony conviction would result in a consecutive sentence of imprisonment," a statement from the agency said. "The HALT bill has been signed into law and DOCCS has been working on a plan to safely implement the law, which still provides for segregated housing for acts of violence against officers and other incarcerated persons."

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