New York advocates fought for eight years to limit solitary confinement in the state’s jails and prisons. They rallied at state capitol, lobbyed legislators, built mock solitary confinement cells to gain public support, and even went on hunger strike.
They rejoiced when New York passed Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Sole Confinement (HALT). ActThis law drastically reduces the time people can spend in isolation confinement in prisons. The law became effective on March 31, 2022.
Advocates who helped pass the law as well as those currently confined at these rehabilitation units are claiming that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is not following the law.
The law imposes clear restrictions: HALT limits the time spent in any type or segregated confinement to fifteen consecutive days (or 20 days within 60-day periods). While there are many names for New York prisons’ segregated confinement unit, all of them refers to confinement in which a person is locked up in their cell for more than 17 hours each night. There’s the special housing unit, or SHU, for those who have been found guilty of violating prison rules. There’s “administrative segregation” for people whom officials deem a threat to the safety and security of the prison. There’s “protective custody” for people who are likely to be threatened or intimidated. Until recently, there was also “keeplock,” in which a person was confined to their cell for 23 hours. (The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision removed keeplock shortly after HALT was approved.
Prior to HALT’s implementation, people had spent years and sometimes multiple decadesIn isolation. It’s a practice that United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez has labeled as torture. Mendez has called for a prohibition against solitary confinementBeyond 15 days
The HALT law also restricted what actions could land a person in isolation. Acts like physical or sexual assault, Escape and extortion can still lead to a sentence in a special housing unit. Less serious violations of prison’s rules still carry consequences, such as loss of phone calls or recreation time, but no longer result in an extended period in isolation.
Individuals sentenced to more that 15 days in a special shelter unit are now sent to residential rehab units, or RRUs. These units are defined by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision as separate housing units “used for therapy, treatment, and rehabilitative programming,”Six hours of programming are expected to be offered that is both outside the cell and with others.
However, “it’s still isolated confinement no matter how you spin it or what fancy acronym you attach to it,” said “Dennis,” who is currently in one of these residential rehabilitation units. (Dennis posed the question. Truthout To avoid retaliation, withhold his legal name. “They’re real ‘hands on’ up here,” he warned.)
Dennis explained that Dennis had covered the window of his cell with a sheet when he was using the toilet. He explained to staff that he was using the restroom and that he had covered the window to his cell door with a sheet. When staff returned, he was still using the toilet when they asked him to remove it.
“It ticked me off a bit so I said, ‘I’m using the fucking bathroom!’ and ‘Get away from my cell!’ And I threw my roll of toilet paper at the bars. It was just a roll of toilet paper, nothing more,” Dennis recalled. “I didn’t even see who it was, but was like, ‘Come on! Can’t a guy have any privacy?’” The roll hit the bars, but did not hit the person outside the bars.
Staff handcuffed him shortly after and charged him with harassment, creating a disturbance and refusing to obey a direct order, threats and visibility obstruction. He was sentenced at the time to one year in special housing. HALT meant that he could spend no more then 15 days in special housing and the remainder of the sanction in a residential rehab unit.
Dennis, however, spent 21 days in this special housing unit before being transferred.
He said TruthoutThe men in the cells of special housing units adjacent to his were waiting 40 to 50 days for their respective sentencing to the residential rehabilitation units.
According to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s own data, on September 1, 2022, 276 people — slightly more than half of the 540 people in the special housing units that day — had been illegally confined to the special housing unit for more than 15 consecutive days. In the past two months 703 people — nearly 43 percent — Had spent over 20 days in a special housing apartment.
New York prisons boast 15 residential rehabilitation units, totaling 1,512 beds. Rachel Connors, a spokesperson of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision sent an email to tell you that Rachel Connors was a spokesperson for the department. Truthout, “More incarcerated individuals are serving disciplinary confinement sanctions because of an increase in violent incidents in facilities. As a result, RRU capacity is currently at 96 percent, which at times, causes delays in individuals being transferred to RRUs.”
Although there have been an increase in reports of assaults, 72 percent of the reported assaults on staff27% of these cases resulted either in minor or major injuries, while 27 percent were free from injury. 98% of people who have been involved in fights between incarcerated persons reported no injury when staff intervened.
“I imagine that you’re gonna hear more about this in the future because there’s only so many RRUs, and COs [correctional officers]Are handing out [disciplinary] tickets like they’re going out of style,” Dennis wrote.
According to the New York prison system’s own data, Dennis’s prediction seems to be coming true. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported on August 1 that 187 people had been incarcerated in the past two months. had spent over 30 days in a special housing unit. That number was surpassed the next month. risen to 256 people.
“It’s really heartbreaking that we fought so hard to have them treat people humanely and they find that it’s OK to not follow the law,” said Anisah Sabur-Matin, an organizer with the HALT Solitary campaign.
Betrayed of Belongings
People in residential rehabilitation units have the right to keep most of what they own, unlike those in special housing units. They cannot have their prison-issued tablet. This would allow them send and receive e mails to outsiders, listen to music and pay for movies or video games.
However, incarcerated people are not allowed to bring their property when they are transferred from one prison or another. Instead, prison officials send the items separately and incarcerated persons must rely on staff and other incarcerated workers for safe delivery. According to prison regulations, a person must receive their belongings within 72 hours after transfer.
Dennis shared his story TruthoutAfter being transferred, he spent seven consecutive days in his almost empty cell, waiting for his books, papers, and writing materials.
“When I asked [staff] on my third day, I was told handing out property wasn’t their priority and that I’d be wise not to bother them about it,” he recalled.
“Seven days just sitting in this cell with nothing was pretty boring, but I wasn’t gonna press the issue and end up on the burn, waiting two weeks or longer,” he said, referring to the informal punishment of denying an incarcerated person their belongings or other requests.
Dennis’s fears of retaliation are not unfounded.
Jairam Ali-Suarez arrived at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility’s residential rehabilitation unit in April 2022, shortly after the HALT law took effect.
People in the special housing unit — and in the residential rehabilitation units — can request a law library tablet, which enables them to do legal research. Ali-Suarez claimed that he requested one. Ali-Suarez filed a grievance (or official complaint) against staff when they refused to give him one. In retaliation, the employee told him Truthout, staff “lost” his property.
Chained to Floor
In addition to time limits on isolation, HALT requires that the residential rehabilitation units offer at least six hours of programming that takes place outside a person’s cell and with other people. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and holistic programming, to include topics such as health and wellness, substance abuse education, spiritual development, current events and community, self-regulation, employment soft skill, and academic supports are offered at all sites and are designed to address an individual’s rehabilitation needs,” prison spokesperson Rachel Connors told Truthout, These programs are available but not mandatory.
The residential rehabilitation units are also supposed to offer an additional hour of recreation, meaning free time out of their cell, either outside or in the prison’s common area.
But prisons aren’t offering those six to seven hours, say people within these units and advocates who work with them.
Dennis is allowed to participate in a weekly two-hour program at his residential rehabilitation unit. He is handcuffed, chained at his waist, and then he is allowed to leave his cell. He is then taken to the classroom. His feet are then chained to the desk under his desk once he is in the classroom. “A civilian [non-officer]For two hours, we are required to complete worksheets or have discussions. Occasionally there’s a video to watch. Then it’s back to your cell,” he described.
The officer on duty opens the back door of his cell three times a day remotely. These are the times when he can go outside for an hour in a 12-by-12 concrete or steel enclosure.
“Unless you’re in a double-bunked cell [or two people assigned to one cell], it’s solitary confinement outside of the two ‘program’ hours out of your cell,” he said.
Dennis’s complaint about the failure to adhere to six hours of congregate, out-of-cell programming is echoed by men in other residential rehabilitation units across New York.
At Great Meadow, Ali-Suarez says that on some mornings, he is offered the opportunity to go to the residential rehabilitation unit’s program, which typically consists of 90 minutes to two hours of watching 1990s movies with other men in the unit.
On other mornings, he can go for two hours to recreation in what he described an outdoor cage. “Usually, there’s just one [person]In a cage. Sometimes, there’s three [people] in a cage,” he said.
By 11:30, he’s back in his cell for count — a procedure in which officers count every incarcerated person to ensure that no one has escaped. Ali-Suarez then gets lunch in his cell.
Reginald Wilson was transferred from Fishkill Correctional Facility to the residential rehabilitation units on April 1, the day after the HALT law took effect. He also told the story. TruthoutHe was not allowed to receive the legally required six hours of programming while he was in the residential rehabilitation units. Instead, he claimed that his weekday routine consisted of 3.5 to 3.5 hours worth of programming and 3.5 hours of solitary exercise outside his cell.
Wilson spent four-and a half months in Fishkill residential rehabilitation units. He was then transferred to Great Meadow Correctional Facility where he is now in general populations.
Robert Adams, 37, was arrested at Orleans Correctional Facility calls the residential rehabilitation units “SHU 2.0.”
For Adams, the morning program consists of being restrained to his desk in a classroom for a group session that he sometimes finds helpful, depending on that day’s facilitator. In the afternoon, he is given the opportunity to attend what’s called “therapeutic rec” in which he and other men are shackled to the floor of the unit’s day room to watch television together. Adams’s hour of outdoor recreation is spent alone in a caged area just behind his cell.
Sabur-Matin narrated Truthout that the HALT campaign has received complaints from people in various RRUs stating that their “programs” consist of being chained to the floor and left to fill out workbooks. “There’s no walking, there’s no stretching, and don’t talk to somebody else. Because then you’re violating,” she said.
Advocates are outraged at the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s failure to follow its own rules.
“When we violate a rule in prison, we suffer the inhumanity of solitary confinement,” said Jerome Wright, the co-director of the HALT Solitary Campaign. “I suffered eight years in solitary, mostly for bogus infractions. What happens to them? [prison officials]Do you violate the law The status quo has got to go.”
Incarcerated people who have experienced HALT’s implementation affirm that the status quo is far from a “humane alternative to solitary confinement.”
“Each facility has their own take on the law. And [the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision] is violating it all across the board,” Wilson wrote, adding, “There was more than enough time for them to have accommodations for the new law.”