Read the full piece in New York Focus
This article is the fourth installment in a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.
A recently enacted reform law strictly limited the reasons for which prisons and jails may send incarcerated people to solitary confinement as punishment. But the New York state prison system has been using its own criteria, illegally sending hundreds of people to solitary for lesser infractions, New York Focus has found.
A review of data published by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, shows that, at minimum, prisons sent people to solitary confinement almost 1,200 times between April and September — nearly one in five solitary confinement sentences — for infractions that aren’t among the law’s solitary-eligible offenses.
That figure is based on a reading of the law — which leaves significant room for interpretation — that leans heavily in DOCCS’s favor, thus the true number of illegal solitary sentences may be much higher. According to New York Focus’s analysis, a majority of the rest of the solitary confinement sentences were only plausibly legal, depending on the specific circumstances of each infraction. The figure also assumes that the allegations represented in the data are accurate and that the prisons offered fair disciplinary hearings for them — both hardly givens.
The reform law, known as the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, went into effect on March 31. The law led to a steep decline in the official solitary confinement population, but its full impact has been blunted: A series of New York Focus investigations has found that DOCCS has failed to implement major facets of the law.
Not only has the prison agency been sending people to solitary confinement for illegal reasons, but it has been routinely holding people in solitary confinement for illegally long periods; isolating people with disabilities, despite HALT barring facilities from sending them to solitary; and failing to abide by standards the law set for alternatives to solitary confinement, including by shackling people to tables for hours a day.
In several cases, the HALT violations have come on direct orders from DOCCS leadership, the investigations have shown.
Data also show that DOCCS is disproportionately sending Black people to solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is torture,” said Victor Pate, co-director of the HALT Solitary Confinement advocacy campaign. “It’s egregious they are sending people, disproportionately Black … people, to this abuse, even for reasons not allowed under the law.”