Judge dismisses N.Y. CO union's HALT solitary legislation lawsuit
New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association has argued that HALT will lead to increased violence in state prisons
By Robert Harding
AUBURN, N.Y. — A federal judge threw out a lawsuit filed by the union representing New York corrections officers that sought to stop the state from implementing a solitary confinement reform law.
U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino dismissed the challenge to the state's Human Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, which took effect in April. The law mandated the creation of residential rehabilitation units and prevents incarcerated individuals from being placed in solitary confinement for more than 15 days.
New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, the union representing corrections officers in state prisons, has argued that HALT will lead to increased violence in state prisons. In its lawsuit, the union accuses the state of violating officers' 14th Amendment rights by exposing them to "state-created danger."
In her decision, D'Agostino said the court "recognizes the serious dangers corrections officers face." But she added that it "strains credulity to allege that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that no state shall 'deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law' imposes a constitutional obligation on the state of New York to use solitary confinement against individuals under 21 or over 55; or that New York state is constitutionally obligated to allow use of solitary confinement of prisoners for more than 15 days at a time."
NYSCOPBA disagrees with the ruling. In a statement, Michael Powers, the union's president, said that the 15-day limit on segregated confinement "puts a target on our backs for those who take advantage of the law."
"Despite the ruling, we will continue our campaign to repeal HALT by organizing our membership to vote out those in the legislature who supported the act," Powers continued. "Once the legislature is back in session, we will focus our efforts on repealing HALT or amending HALT to strike out the dangerous portions. NYSCOPBA continues to strongly oppose any portions of HALT that limit DOCCS's ability to separate dangerous inmates from staff and other rule-following inmates."
NYSCOPBA has long criticized the state for its lack of action in addressing violence in prisons. Data from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision shows assaults on staff have increased every since at least 2017. There were a record 1,177 assaults on staff in 2021. So far this year, there have been 558 assaults on staff.
In the last three months, many of the assaults or officers intervening in fights between incarcerated individuals have resulted in no injuries to staff or minor injuries that, according to DOCCS, result in no treatment, minimal treatment for bruises, pain or scratches, or precautionary treatment. One officer has been severely injured and 58 reported moderate or serious injuries.
As assaults continue to rise, NYSCOPBA has blamed HALT for the spike. But Jerome Wright, co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign and a formerly incarcerated individual, believes D'Agostino made the right decision to dismiss the union's lawsuit.
"We've waited long enough for this to be put in place," he said. "Countless people had to suffer and die in solitary for lawmakers to finally act and make this bill a law after nearly a decade of deliberation with all stakeholders. We demand that prisons and jails, and the staff who work there, now embrace the law and fully implement all of its provisions in order to relieve suffering, save lives and make everyone safer. End this torture and trauma now."
HALT advocates highlight a fact mentioned by the union — that assaults on staff have actually been on the rise since 2012. The increase began before the state first adopted changes to its solitary confinement policies in 2016 after a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
When there was a jump in solitary confinement sanctions, advocates pushed for passage of HALT. The state Legislature approved the bill last year and it was signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
(c)2022 The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y.