Chris Gelardi


Solitary by Another Name: How State Prisons Are Using ‘Therapeutic’ Units to Evade Reforms

Read the full piece in New York Focus and The Appeal

This is the third installment in a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.

When it’s time for Leroy Burton to attend the “therapeutic” classroom time offered to his unit at Upstate Correctional Facility, a state prison at the northern tip of New York, he puts his hands through a slot in the door to his cell. An officer on the other side cuffs his wrists, then opens the door so a second officer can pat Burton down, connect the handcuffs to a chain, wrap the chain around his waist, and use it as a leash to walk him down the hall. When they get to the room where the therapeutic programming is held, the officers order Burton to kneel on a box so they can place another pair of cuffs around his ankles. They guide him to his seat and shackle him to a table, where he stays for the duration of the classroom time — usually over two hours, he said.

Shackling is the rule, not the exception, for the more than 1,400 people incarcerated daily in units like Burton’s across the state. The prison agency has instructed superintendents to use restraints for all of them, despite state law that bans the practice without individualized safety assessments.

The units, known as residential rehabilitation units (RRUs), are a creation of a recent prison reform law, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.

The HALT Act invented RRUs — and set strict standards for them — so facilities, in theory, could have a relatively humane and rehabilitative place away from the general population to send those whom they are no longer allowed to keep in solitary. But in practice, state prisons are neglecting to follow the rules HALT imposed on RRUs — in some cases making them little better than the solitary confinement cells they’re supposed to replace.

RRUs and solitary confinement units together hold close to 2,000 people each day, more than the roughly 1,750 that were held in solitary before HALT went into effect.

Among HALT’s rules is a ban on placing restraints on RRU residents when they’re participating in out-of-cell activities; the only exception is if officials make an “individual assessment” that not cuffing someone would pose a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk. But New York Focus has found that, for more than five of the six months that HALT has been in effect, the prison system’s policy has been to shackle every one of the hundreds of RRU residents during out-of-cell activities, like they do to Burton.

“It’s really dehumanizing,” said Julia Salazar, chair of the state Senate’s corrections committee and lead sponsor of HALT. “They just want to do the easiest thing, not the most humane thing, when it comes to implementation” of the law.

For out-of-cell time, HALT mandates that facilities offer RRU residents at least seven hours a day, and that it must take place in a congregate setting with other incarcerated people. But men incarcerated in four different prisons told New York Focus that they rarely get anywhere near that much time out of their cell, and a vast majority of their out-of-cell hours consist of either time alone in a small outdoor cage or indoor activities during which they’re shackled to a table.

“[The prisons] don’t want an RRU unit where they can help people,” said Anisah Sabur, an organizer with the HALT Solitary campaign who recently visited an RRU. “They want to be in a space where you keep people locked in 23 hours a day.”

The revelations about RRUs follow two New York Focus investigations that found that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, is routinely violating the core tenets of HALT.

Whereas HALT bars facilities from keeping people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, prisons have kept hundreds of people in solitary for longer than that since the law went into effect. HALT also prohibits putting people with disabilities in solitary confinement, but prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical ailments to solitary, including dozens with the highest levels of health care needs.

In response to the investigations, DOCCS asserted that “continued allegations that the Department has intentionally violated any of the parameters of the HALT Act are patently false.”

According to Burton and other incarcerated people, prison staff have been attributing many of the HALT-violating practices, including the shackling of RRU residents, to orders from “Albany,” where DOCCS is headquartered.

“How are you going to listen to ‘Albany’ before you listen to the law?” wondered Burton.

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