Department of Corrections violated solitary confinement law, judge rules

ALBANY, N.Y (NEXSTAR) — A judge ruled on Tuesday that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) violated the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act. In the class action lawsuit backed by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Supreme Court Judge Kevin Bryant said that DOCCS failed to justify segregating inmates from the general population.

You can take a look at the full decision at the bottom of this story. In response, DOCCS said they are reviewing the decision, and have made several policy changes to ensure compliance with HALT. The department’s statement outlines ways that current DOCCS Commissioner Daniel Martuscello updated policies on restraining incarcerated people and a new Confinement Justification Record Form.

Passed in 2021 and taking effect in 2022, the HALT Act defines solitary as confinement offering an incarcerated person under seven hours out of their cell in a day. It specifically limits how many days it can last to 15 in a row or 20 days out of 60. The Act provides exceptions, letting officers isolate them for a longer period when DOCCS:

  • Holds an evidentiary hearing for each case
  • Writes a report detailing how the incarcerated person poses a serious threat to the facility, staff, or other incarcerated people

The case focuses on three people held in isolation in prison or a mental health facility for assaulting staff, specifically by throwing unhygienic bodily fluids—or objects soaked in bodily fluids—at them. One person held in Fishkill received a 120-day sentence for disciplinary confinement; another in Gouverneur got 210 days; and the third, in Coxsackie, got 730.

Bryant found the department’s documentation after disciplinary hearings inadequate, failing to connect the dots. HALT says that isolating someone longer requires a record of “specific objective criteria” describing the significant, serious, and imminent risk of seriously physically injuring someone at the facility or compromising the security of the facility itself.

They held hearings, the NYCLU alleged, but made no case-by-case decisions. Instead, per the lawsuit, they relied on an internal blanket policy that any act they deem as a “Tier III violation” automatically meets the threshold set forth by HALT.

According to Bryant, “Other than the general and ambiguous denial in their answer, DOCCS has still failed to specifically admit or deny that the challenged policy exists.”

Bryant said DOCCS did not articulate with enough precision how these particular incarcerated people crossed the line to be considered too dangerous to interact with anyone for weeks at a time. He rejected the argument from DOCCS that simply describing those unhygienic assaults inherently met the thresholds laid out in the HALT Act. He wrote:

“No findings were made, and no explanations were set forth in the decisions at issue. Given the language of the statute, it is the finding of this Court that DOCCS cannot rely on alleged inherency or the nature of the offenses at issue. The required fact-specific findings have not been set forth in the documents before the Court and DOCCS presents no basis for this Court fo reject the claim that these examples are representative of the entire class.”

Judge Kevin R. Bryant

Ultimately, the judge agreed with the NYCLU that carved-out exceptions at DOCCS facilities were arbitrary and capricious. He ordered DOCCS to comply with HALT. He also ordered that they drop the apparent disciplinary policy and conduct fact-specific inquiries instead. He also declared all decisions under that unauthorized policy null and void.

In a written statement after the decision, Antony Gemmell with the New York Civil Liberties Union said, “DOCCS has flouted the basic requirements of HALT by routinely imposing extended disciplinary segregation the Legislature saw fit to prohibit. By ignoring these limits, DOCCS has inflicted profound, often irreversible harm on generations of incarcerated New Yorkers, who are disproportionally Black and brown.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from the New York State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA)—the union for correctional officers—reaffirmed its opposition to the HALT Act. “NYSCOPBA has long been opposed to the HALT Act and have repeatedly called for it to be amended or repealed. Since HALT went into effect inmate assaults on staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults have skyrocketed,” said Director of Public Relations James Miller. “HALT has stripped a disciplinary system that was already watered down and it weakened it even more.”

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