This is the first installment in a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.
New York Prisons are holding hundreds of people in solitary confinement longer than state law permits, effectively refusing to implement the heart of one of the state’s highest-profile recent criminal justice reforms.
As of September 1, the majority of people held in solitary confinement in New York state prisons — 276 people — had been there for longer than state law allows, according to new data released Monday. Several times more were held in units not designated as solitary but still separated from the general population, which incarcerated people report often do not meet standards set by a recent solitary confinement reform law, and can function as unofficial solitary.
The state legislature passed the law, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, in 2021, but it only went into full effect a year later, on March 31. The law placed strict limitations on whom prisons and jails could place in solitary confinement, what infractions they could send them there for, and how long they could keep them there. It resulted in a dramatic reduction in the prisons’ official solitary confinement population: from over 1,600 when it was signed into law to less than 300 at its low point earlier this year. (It has since ticked back up to over 500.)
The law has been met with pushback from corrections officers unions, which have launched an aggressive public campaign demanding its repeal. They argue that prolonged solitary confinement, which has been shown to produce grave mental anguish, is key to preventing prison and jail violence. Proponents of the law have countered that re-introducing a punishment denounced by international human rights bodies is a non-starter. “HALT will never be repealed because New York will never again sanction the use of torture,” said Senator Julia Salazar, who sponsored HALT in the state Senate, where she chairs the corrections committee.
But while the pushback against HALT has garnered significant press attention, little has been paid to how the law has actually been implemented. State data published as a requirement of HALT and reviewed by New York Focus, as well as interviews with incarcerated people and advocates, reveal that, in the five months since HALT went into full effect, state prisons have routinely violated several of its foundational tenets.
HALT placed limits on the number of days a prison or jail is allowed to keep someone in solitary confinement. But, as first reported by Gothamist with last month’s numbers, data show that the prison system is violating the restrictions about as often as it is adhering to them. On September 1, the average person in solitary had been held there for longer than the legal limit.
A spokesperson for the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, said it “continuously monitors the status of incarcerated individuals housed in [solitary confinement] cells and makes every effort to effect transfers as expeditiously as possible.” The spokesperson said that the transfers take place “when appropriate space is available.”
HALT also created a new category of prison and jail units where facilities may send those whom they wish to separate from the general population but who have reached their maximum time in traditional solitary confinement. Yet interviews with incarcerated people and advocates suggest that some prisons aren’t adhering to the law’s requirements for these new units. They asserted that prisons have refused to facilitate legally mandated programming for people in the new units and have limited their out-of-cell time to stints in small “dog run” pens, among other violations — essentially treating the units as an extension of solitary confinement.
“There’s no accountability from DOCCS whatsoever,” said Victor Pate, an organizer with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. “There’s no oversight. And it’s just a mess right now.”