Chris Gelardi


Can Anyone Make New York Prisons Follow Solitary Confinement Law?

Read the full piece in New York Focus

Last Tuesday, top members of New York state legislative committees got to publicly question Anthony Annucci, the “acting” head of the state prison agency, for the first time in almost a year. Last March, lawmakers refused to confirm Annucci’s nomination to the position — which he has held for the past nine years — paradoxically letting him keep his post.

Annucci faced legislators again last week after 10 months of flouting them: Shortly after his last hearing, the landmark Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act went into effect, and Annucci’s department has violated nearly every facet of the law since. But during the hearing, an annual meeting to discuss public safety elements of the state budget, the perpetual interim commissioner seemed comfortable. Most of the legislators didn’t seem to know what to ask.

The committee heads were aware of reports — like New York Focus’s multi-part investigation — that prisons had been breaking the law, which restricts the use of solitary confinement. But they spent the few minutes they were allotted asking for statistics the prison agency publishes on its website. They conflated different prison units, allowing Annucci and his deputy to take detours. And they followed up with vagaries.

“There are certain facilities that still have not complied with HALT — what would be the commentary related to that?” Senator Jamaal Bailey, head of the criminal justice policy committee, asked at one point.

When the prison officials replied with evasions, the legislators tended to move on without follow-ups.

The hearing was an urgent matter for those in prison isolation units. A smattering of agencies and organizations are tasked with keeping tabs on HALT’s implementation, but they’ve so far done little to confront the prison system over its obstinance. And Governor Kathy Hochul has been silent on the issue. For five months, her office has neglected to respond to New York Focus’s repeated inquiries.

Democratic lawmakers won’t have another opportunity to publicly grill prison officials for months, as New York’s annual budget legislation dominates the legislative schedule.

rom the other side of the aisle, Republican legislators painted HALT as overkill, and solitary confinement — prolonged use of which international human rights bodies have categorized as torture — as easy time.

“Working technology, outdoor spaces, food brought to you — it sounds nicer than most of the hotel rooms in Albany that I’ve been in,” quipped Senator George Borrello, who later characterized his comments as “tongue-in-cheek.”

“This hearing is demonstrating to me what happens when Democrats fail to dedicate the time and demonstrate the same interest in our state’s carceral and criminal legal systems that Republicans do,” Senator Julia Salazar, head of the corrections committee and a lead sponsor of HALT, tweeted during the hearing, which she couldn’t attend because she was ill.

“If you don’t expose this stuff, their false narrative prevails.”

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