The world of corrections post-HALT Solitary Confinement Act...

  • Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris said, "There should be no place in civilized society for the legalized torture of solitary confinement, which serves no useful purpose."
  • Senator Joseph P. Addabbo Jr. said, "Helping reform prisoners, rather than punishing them with solitary confinement, should be the goal of our prison system. I appreciate the work that went into crafting this bill that prevents vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary confinement, while still providing ways to deal with serious offenders."
  • Senator Rachel May said, "Solitary confinement amounts to torture. If we have learned anything over the last year, it's that lack of human interaction is disastrous and can cause long-lasting effects on mental and physical health."

These are just a few quotes from New York State Senators following their passing of The HALT Solitary Confinement Act. This legislation is based on a false narrative, from the cover photo used by the Senate of antiquated, no-longer-used cells to the bill's purposely misused language. The fact is solitary confinement does not exist in New York State. "Solitary confinement" implies total isolation and separation of other individuals with limited-to-no human contact.

The truth is, the state utilizes special housing units (SHUs), which were designed with the safety of all incarcerated individuals in mind. They are used to control dangerous situations, and only when incarcerated individuals commit serious infractions. They are also utilized as a safe space for vulnerable individuals to avoid persecution from other incarcerated individuals.

Would Increase Violence

In essence, the SHU is the jail within the jail, which is one of the few tools jails and prisons have at their disposal to maintain control. The elimination of SHUs would lead to an increase in violence and worse living conditions for many incarcerated individuals. Imagine having a loved one beaten, cut, maimed or sexually assaulted and the maximum time allowed in the SHU would be 15 days.

Although SHUs are used to separate individuals to promote a safer environment or to limit or control physical interaction, they are not a tool for complete isolation, as many HALT activists would have you believe. Those residing in SHUs are afforded most, if not all, of the comforts as those in general population, including outdoor time, access to authorized electronics, unlimited legal counsel, visitation rights, access to libraries and health care, among others.

Upon admission to SHU, initial screenings are done by medical personnel and followed up with daily rounds under the supervision of correction officers and supervisors. All mental health triggers are noted and assessed immediately.

This brings me to the next misused statistic used by the #HALTsolitary campaign, which is "surging rates of suicide and self-harm in NYS prisons, with solitary confinement as a primary driver. Last year New York's prisons had the highest rate of suicide in two decades."

This sensational sound bite ignores a very important factor: the impact on the incarcerated of inadequate mental-health treatment. New York State has seen a drastic cut in the number of psychiatric beds available for the mentally ill, and combined with a lack of treatment facilities and programs, they often find themselves in jails and prisons, leaving the corrections system to manage folks who would be better served remaining in a mental-health setting.

Suicide under any circumstances is tragic, and it is especially likely to occur among the incarcerated if they are not provided with adequate medical care in the right type of mental-health facility.

Throughout the process of getting HALT passed, the legislators focused on and toured primarily New York State prisons. But HALT affects more than just the state correctional officers, it affects county jail officers as well, and we were never given a proper seat at the table. Additionally, across the board the County Executives, Commissioners and Sheriffs were excluded from meaningful input. And now, they along with all officers on the state and local levels are unhappy.

Push for Amendments

Through much advocacy and dialogue with the legislative branches The Downstate Correction Coalition (a coalition of unions representing close to 35,000 uniformed staff from NYS prisons, New York City and Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester County jails) was able to discuss adding amendments to HALT which would add some layers of protection to those of us who are truly affected behind the walls.

Governor Cuomo has indicated that there is an agreement with the Legislature to make amendments to the language. In his approval message, he stated that, "in order to protect all incarcerated individuals and the essential workers that staff these facilities, amendments are necessary to ensure that processes are in place to address all possible circumstances where an individual may need to be separated from other incarcerated individuals, including when an incarcerated individual commits multiple acts of violence."

Governor, every person who works or is detained in our prisons and jails deserves to be protected from violent, predatory inmates. We are mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, and our rights are no less important than that of the violent inmates who have no regard for the safety of our officers, staff and non-violent inmates. As with bail reform, this thoughtless legislation will get people you are entrusted to protect seriously injured or even killed. As with bail reform, this legislation must immediately be amended to provide a means to properly segregate violent inmates from us, your constituents that just want to get through our days safely.

Neil Pellone is president of the Westchester Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

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