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Official blames N.Y. solitary reform law for increased attacks on COs

Gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin is demanding Gov. Kathy Hochul release data on assaults on COs since a solitary confinement reform law took effect on April 1

By Robert Harding
The Citizen, Auburn, N.Y.

AUBURN, N.Y. — Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin is demanding Gov. Kathy Hochul release data on assaults on correctional officers — information that’s already publicly available — since a solitary confinement reform law took effect on April 1.

The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, known as HALT, was approved by the Democratic-led state Legislature and signed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The law’s main provisions include a limit on how long incarcerated individuals may be placed in solitary confinement — no more than 15 days — and the creation of rehabilitation units intended to be an alternative to segregated confinement.

According to data released by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in its monthly report, there were 406 assaults on staff in the second quarter — the first three months that HALT was in effect. That’s up from 290 in the same quarter last year and 293 in the first quarter of this year.

The use of special housing units has declined since HALT took effect. DOCCS reported that 1,724 incarcerated individuals were in special housing units on March 1, the last month before the new solitary confinement reform law went into effect. By April 1, the number of incarcerated individuals in special housing units was down to 725. As of Aug. 1, there are 490 SHU occupants.

Violence in state prisons is not a new problem, but it has been increasing in recent years. Based on the DOCCS data, the assaults on staff and incarcerated individuals are on pace to set records this year. Through the first seven months of the year, state prisons reported 842 assaults on staff and 821 assaults on incarcerated individuals.

Most of the assaults on staff in the second quarter resulted in no injuries to officers, but DOCCS said there were 673 minor injuries — classified by the department as “injuries that require either no treatment, minimal treatment (scratch, bruise, aches/pain) or precautionary treatment” — and 39 moderate injuries (ranging from burns and cuts to concussions, sprains and muscle or ligament damage).

The department also reported eight serious injuries (injuries that require a trip to the hospital but aren’t considered life-threatening) and one severe injury (defined as “obvious disfigurement, protracted impairment of health, loss or impairment of organ function, amputation, and injuries that risk cause of death”) in the quarter.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, a union representing corrections officers, has railed against HALT and even filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law. That lawsuit was dismissed in June. The union claimed that the law would lead to increased violence in prisons.

Zeldin said in a statement on Wednesday that he has heard from correctional officers that attacks “have been nonstop” since HALT’s implementation.

” Kathy Hochul must immediately release all of the data of attacks against New York’s correctional officers since the HALT Act was implemented so the public can be informed of the true consequences of this law,” he said. “The governor has become an accomplice of these assaults by staying silent, refusing to lead, and resisting all calls to repeal this extremely dangerous new law. Enough is enough! We must repeal the HALT Act!”

Hochul’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Supporters of HALT have criticized the effects of solitary confinement on incarcerated individuals. Advocates have also noted that assaults on staff have been increasing since 2012 — long before any solitary confinement reforms were implemented.

Jerome Wright, a formerly incarcerated individual who now serves as co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign, has urged state prisons and local jails to “embrace the law and fully implement all of its provisions to relieve suffering, save lives and make everyone safer.”

“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.”