New York Prisons Are Blatantly Violating State Law Limiting Solitary Confinement

New York advocates fought for eight years to limit solitary confinement in the state’s jails and prisons. They rallied at the state capitol, lobbied lawmakers, built a mock solitary confinement cell to drum up public support, and even went on hunger strike.

On March 31, 2021, they rejoiced when New York passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, drastically limiting the amount of time that people in jails and prisons can spend in solitary confinement. The law took effect on March 31, 2022.

Now, advocates who helped pass the law, as well as those currently confined in these rehabilitation units, are charging that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is failing to follow the law.

The restrictions set by the law are clear: HALT limits time spent in any type of segregated confinement to 15 consecutive days (or 20 days within a 60-day period). New York prisons have many names for their segregated confinement units, but all of them refer to confinement in which a person spends more than 17 hours each day locked in their cell. 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 eliminated keeplock just after HALT was signed into law.)

Prior to HALT’s implementation, people had spent years and sometimes multiple decades in 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 confinement beyond 15 days.

The HALT law also limited the types of actions that could land a person in solitary. Acts such as physical or sexual assault, extortion and escape can still result in a special housing unit sentence. 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.

Those sentenced to more than 15 days in the special housing unit are now sent to residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs. These units, which the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has defined as separate housing units “used for therapy, treatment, and rehabilitative programming,” are supposed to offer six hours of programming that are both out of the cell and with other people.

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 asked that Truthout withhold his legal name to prevent retaliation. “They’re real ‘hands on’ up here,” he warned.)

Dennis explained that, while using the toilet, he had covered the window to his cell door with a sheet. When staff ordered him to remove the sheet, he told them that he was using the bathroom. He was still on the toilet when they returned and reiterated their order.

“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.

Ten minutes later, however, staff handcuffed him and charged him with creating a disturbance, harassment, refusing a direct order, threats, visibility obstruction, violent conduct and unhygienic act. He was sentenced to one year in the special housing unit which, under HALT, meant that he should spend no more than 15 days in the special housing unit and the remainder of his sanction in a residential rehabilitation unit.

But Dennis spent 21 days in the special housing unit before being transferred.

He told Truthout that the men in the special housing unit cells adjoining his had been waiting 40 and 50 days to be sent 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. Within the previous two months, 703 people — nearly 43 percenthad spent over 20 days in a special housing unit.

New York prisons have 15 residential rehabilitation units with a total of 1,512 beds. In an email, Rachel Connors, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, told 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.”

While reports of assaults have increased, 72 percent of the reported assaults on staff have resulted in no injury and 27 percent resulted in minor or moderate injuries. When staff have intervened in fights and assaults between incarcerated people, 98 percent reported no injury.

“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. On August 1, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reported that, within the previous two months, 187 people had spent over 30 days in a special housing unit. By the following month, that number had 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.

Deprived of Belongings

Unlike those confined to the special housing unit, people in the residential rehabilitation units are allowed to keep most of their belongings. The one item that they cannot have is their prison-issued tablet, which would allow them to send and receive e-messages to people on the outside, listen to music, or pay to watch movies or play video games.

When an incarcerated person is transferred from one prison to another, however, they do not bring their property with them. Instead, prison officials send their items separately, and incarcerated people must rely on staff and other incarcerated workers to deliver their belongings safely. Prison regulations stipulate that a person receive their belongings within 72 hours of transfer.

Dennis told Truthout that after being transferred, he spent seven days in his nearly 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 said he requested a law library tablet. When staff did not give him one, he filed a grievance, or official complaint. In retaliation, he told Truthout, staff “lost” his property.

Chained to the 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, noting that these programs are offered, but not obligatory.

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.

In the residential rehabilitation unit where Dennis will spend the next year, he is offered the opportunity to participate in a two-hour program on weekdays. Before he can leave his cell, however, he is handcuffed and chained at the waist. He is then escorted to the classroom. Once in the classroom, his feet are chained to the floor under his desk. “A civilian [non-officer] holds discussions or has us complete worksheets for two hours. Occasionally there’s a video to watch. Then it’s back to your cell,” he described.

Three times each day, the back door to his cell is opened remotely by the officer on duty. These are the times he can go outside for one hour in a 12-by-12 concrete and 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.

Other mornings, he can go to recreation for two hours in what he described as 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. After that, Ali-Suarez is given lunch to eat, alone, in his cell.

Reginald Wilson was transferred to the residential rehabilitation units at Fishkill Correctional Facility on April 1, one day after the HALT law went into effect. He too told Truthout that, while in the residential rehabilitation units, he did not receive the legally mandated six hours of programming. Instead, he said, his weekday schedule consisted of 3.5 hours of programming and another 3.5 hours of solitary exercise in the outdoor cage adjoining his cell.

Wilson spent four-and-a-half months in the Fishkill residential rehabilitation units, at which point he was transferred to Great Meadow Correctional Facility, where he is now in general population.

At Orleans Correctional Facility, 37-year-old Robert Adams 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 told 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 when they [prison officials] 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.”