N.Y. COs wary solitary changes will make prison violence worse
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act nears implementation at the end of the month
By Fernando Alba
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — New York's solitary confinement reform in state prisons continues to draw criticism by correctional officers as it nears implementation at the end of the month.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act will limit the number of days an inmate can spend in isolation to 15, exclude the punishment of solitary confinement for vulnerable inmates, introduce alternate rehabilitation measures and give due process protections for inmates that will prohibit placement in isolation units before a disciplinary hearing.
As state prisons experience a record-high in reported assaults against corrections staff with a dwindling inmate population, the union representing New York correctional officers fears that restricting the use of disciplinary measures will put more officers and staff at risk.
In the last three weeks, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said, multiple officers and one inmate sustained injuries in three separate incidents at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora.
One incident in late February involved an inmate reportedly attacking a sergeant and an officer after handcuffs were removed so he could be evaluated in an infirmary room.
In early March, one inmate repeatedly struck another inmate in the face with a sharpened toothbrush in the mess hall. And a day later, the union said, a sergeant and two officers were injured after an inmate punched, elbowed and spat blood in the face of an officer after he reportedly became combative.
"My fear is these types of attacks will only increase with the inability to properly discipline violent inmates who attack staff and other inmates," NYSCOPBA Northern Region Vice President John Roberts said in a news release.
"By the time HALT goes into effect, these three violent inmates involved in the three incidents at Clinton will be back in general population with the ability to attack again, with little or no deterrence. All HALT will do, and the elected officials who supported this ill-conceived legislation have done, is create a more dangerous environment for everyone."
OUT OF CELL PROGRAMS
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it has taken sufficient preparation ahead of HALT's implementation and believes the legislation will lead to safer facilities.
"The Department has initiated intensive preparations, including staff training and communication with incarcerated individuals, in order to safely and effectively implement the law when it goes into effect on March 31," a DOCCS spokesperson said Friday.
"It is our hope that the out-of-cell programming offered in the Residential Rehabilitation Units as a result of this law will have a positive effect on the population and lead to safer correctional facilities across the state."
SAFETY TASK FORCE
DOCCS added that the safety of officers and inmates remains a top priority.
"The Department has zero tolerance for violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution," DOCCS said.
To address the uptick in prison violence, DOCCS said, the department has also introduced a task force in December to develop recommendations to enhance safety and security. Following the task force's first meeting in February, members looked over recommendations, technology and equipment to draft policies for implementation.
New York Assemblymember Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Lake), a former correctional officer, said he has reservations on how effective HALT will be in stemming violence.
"There are serious concerns about how the HALT Act will further increase violence at correctional facilities and that is one of the many reasons why I voted against it," Jones said in a release Friday.
"I also have passed legislation to help keep our correctional facilities safe including ending double-bunking in facilities across the state. The workers at North Country correctional facilities were deemed essential during the pandemic and they deserve to be safe."
Jones said he has co-sponsored a bill that would create a commission to study prison violence, which would present solutions to address the increase in assaults.
"The hardworking folks at correctional facilities are counting on the state to take action and we must do something before more people are seriously hurt, or even worse, killed," Jones said.
(c)2022 the Press-Republican (Plattsburgh, N.Y.)