Union for correction officers sues NY over HALT law on solitary confinement

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 10 May 2021 at 9:18 pm

ALBANY – The union representing correction officers in New York has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to repeal the state HALT legislation that limited solitary confinement in state prisons to 15 days.

The State Legislature passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act and it was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 31.

This legislation limits the amount of time an incarcerated person can spend in segregated confinement to 15 days, clearly defines and reduces the number of disciplinary infractions eligible for segregated confinement, and exempts certain vulnerable populations, including the young, elderly, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and individuals with a serious mental illness.

The New York State Corrections Officers Benevolent Association filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Albany.

The group said the legislation was hastily passed without any significant input from stakeholders, and will further restrict inmate discipline that was already significantly watered down by the New York Civil Liberties Union Settlement with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in 2012.

Since then, NYSCOPBA said assaults on staff, inmate-on-inmate assaults and contraband have risen dramatically while the inmate population continues to dwindle. Assaults on staff are up almost 100 percent and inmate-on-inmate assaults have increased 85 percent during the same time period that the inmate population has decreased by 20,000, the union said.

The new HALT legislation will result in more violence in state prisons, with violent inmates getting a free pass when they hurt staff members and other inmates, NYSCOPBA said today in a news release.

“Today’s federal lawsuit is the first step to NYSCOPBA finally saying enough is enough!” said NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers. “It is unacceptable that our members continue to get attacked and receive little or no support from our elected officials who choose to turn a deaf ear to those men and women who provide safety and security for all New Yorkers.

“The stories of staff getting viciously attacked and injured are endless and will continue without any meaningful reform to these short-sighted policies,” Powers said. “Instead of catering to the inmates, our members deserve the respect and support of every state legislator they have sworn to protect.”

The lawsuit filed by Lippes, Mathias, Wexler, Friedman LLP and names the defendants – Gov. Andrew Cuomo, DOCCS and Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of DOCCS.

In enacting HALT, the defendants have created “a substantial and imminent risk that correction officers, correction sergeants and non-violent incarcerated individuals will be seriously injured or killed,” the lawsuit states.

The suit says the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees public employees the right to be free “from state-created danger.”

The State Legislature and governor, in passing the HALT legislation, have shown “a deliberate and callous indifference to the lives and safety of correction officers, correction sergeants and peaceful incarcerated individuals in the general population of state prisons that shocks the contemporary conscience,” the lawsuit states.

The suit states the inmate population is down from 54,865 in 61 prisons in 2012 to 34,446 in 52 prisons in 2020. While the inmate population is down dramatically, the percentage of the inmate population with a violent crime conviction is up from 79.2 percent in maximum security prisons in 2011 to 86.4 percent of the inmates in maximum security sites in 2021.

In medium-security prisons, the percentage of inmates with violent crimes is up from 54.6 percent in 2011 to 65.8 percent in 2021.

The lawsuit also states conditions have improved for inmates in segregated housing. Beginning in 2018, DOCCS issued electronic tablets with ear buds/head phones which allow up to 6 hours of phone calls a day for greater access and support from family and friends, as well as educational materials, music, books and games. Those tablets are provided at no cost to the incarcerated individuals. In 2018, inmates in segregated housing made 2,039,237 calls from the tablets lasting about 36 million minutes.

Those inmates are allowed weekly visits, religious counseling, programming, access to law library materials and correspondence, according to the lawsuit.

“For years, NYSCOPBA has implored DOCCS and statewide elected officials to take a hard look and research why violence against all staff, sworn and civilian, was increasing in prisons across the state,” the union said. “Those concerns, unfortunately took a back seat to advocacy groups who continued to push a progressive criminal justice agenda that plain and simple endangered every one of our members.”