Read the full piece in New York Focus
This article is part of a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.
Anthony Annucci, longtime acting commissioner of the New York state prison agency, quietly ordered the illegal shackling of thousands of incarcerated people to desks for hours a day, even as his department’s public regulations forbade the practice, internal records obtained by New York Focus show.
The order relates to the landmark Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which went into effect across the state on March 31 and placed numerous restrictions on prisons’ and jails’ use of solitary confinement. Among the regulations is a rule against placing restraints on residents of certain units while they’re participating in out-of-cell activities. Staff are allowed to make case-by-case exceptions — but only if they conduct an “individual assessment” that determines that an incarcerated person poses a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk.
But in a memo sent to all prison superintendents three weeks after HALT’s enactment, Annucci flipped that script: Instead of a presumption against shackling the protected residents, he wrote that, with limited exceptions, he had ordered facilities to “utilize restraints any time an incarcerated individual is … participating in out-of-cell programming,” which often lasts for several hours.
According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), the state prison agency, all facilities except the Hudson and Adirondack state prisons continue to implement Annucci’s order, which has likely affected over 5,000 people.
The memo is a glaring illustration of the state prison system’s resistance to implementing HALT. A series of New York Focus investigations has found that prisons have routinely violated numerous aspects of the law. Flouting HALT since its implementation, the prisons have held people in solitary confinement for illegally long periods; sent people with disabilities to solitary, despite HALT’s ban on the practice; handed down long solitary sentences for prohibited reasons; and failed to abide by current standards for alternatives to solitary confinement.
In the April memo, which New York Focus obtained through a public records request, Annucci referred to the portion of HALT that bans most out-of-cell shackling. But in an excerpt from the legislation, he omitted mention of the “individual” safety assessments required under HALT, making it seem as though his blanket override of the no-restraints rule was in line with the law.
“After careful consideration of circumstances surrounding the significant increase in violence, including serious injuries to staff and incarcerated individuals, the Acting Commissioner issued the memo,” DOCCS told New York Focus, responding to questions about Annucci’s omission. The department said the memo “comports with HALT and the Department’s responsibilities.” DOCCS added that violence at Hudson and Adirondack “has not necessitated the use of restraints” under the memo.
According to Julia Salazar, HALT’s prime sponsor in the state Senate and chair of the Senate’s corrections committee, the order is illegal. “This is clearly a violation of the law as written,” she told New York Focus.
“People should be evaluated on an individual basis,” Salazar said. “And only if there is a clear and identifiable threat of physical violence is it at all reasonable to constrain someone like this — especially because ostensibly they’re supposed to be going through therapeutic, rehabilitative programming.”