NY COs union files lawsuit against state to overturn limits on solitary confinement
“The predators that lurk in our prison system basically now have a free pass to prey on whoever they want," said Union President Michael Powers
By Denis Slattery
New York Daily News
ALBANY — A union representing New York correction officers filed a federal lawsuit Monday in an attempt to overturn recently enacted limits on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.
The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, or NYSCOPBA, claims in the suit that a new law reducing the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary violates the federal civil rights of its members and will lead to an uptick in violence.
“(T)hese policies diminish accountability for those incarcerated individuals who commit violent acts while in prison, and create a dangerous living and working environment,” states the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Albany.
The Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT, was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Cuomo in March. The measure puts a 15-day cap on how much time an inmate can spend in isolation, limits who can be put in solitary, and expands specialized services for inmates before reentering general population.
The law doesn’t go into effect until next April.
Union President Michael Powers and members of the union, which represents about 18,000 officers, gathered outside the federal courthouse in downtown Albany to announce the suit and slam the new measures.
“In essence, HALT forgives violence,” Powers said. “The predators that lurk in our prison system basically now have a free pass to prey on whoever they want, consequence-free.”
He and others said that there has been an increase in violent incidents over the course of the past nine years, despite a declining prison population.
Chris Moreau, the union’s vice president for the Mid-Hudson region, said many officers are worried about the limits included in the new law, which bars the use of solitary confinement for anyone between the ages of 18 and 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.”
The suit names the governor and the state Corrections Department as defendants.
A Corrections spokesman said that he could not comment on pending litigation, but added that the agency has a “zero tolerance policy with respect to violence in our facilities and pursues both disciplinary charges and criminal prosecution for any assault.”
“The HALT bill has been signed into law and [the Corrections Department] 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,” spokesman Thomas Mailey said.
Supporters of the measure and advocates urged patience and argue that the new limitations will improve safety for incarcerated people and staff.
“Simply put, solitary confinement is torture. It’s not only harmful and deadly itself, but also leads to violence as people deteriorate,” said Jerome Wright, a statewide organizer with the #HALTSolitary Campaign. “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.”
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