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Class action suit filed over DOCCS solitary confinement use in state prisons

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  • Staff Report 

Late Wednesday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), alleging that the department is holding individuals in prison in solitary confinement for excessive durations and for inappropriate reasons, in violation of state law. The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners’ Legal Services lodged the suit in the state Supreme Court, claiming that the DOCCS is breaching the Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act.

The HALT Act, effective since April 1 last year, limits the time a prisoner in New York can be held in solitary confinement to 17 hours per day, and no more than 15 consecutive days, or 20 days over two months. The suit argues that the DOCCS is failing to adhere to the provisions of the law permitting extended confinement only after conviction for one of seven specified actions, such as causing or attempting to cause serious physical injury or death. The law also mandates that the department demonstrates that the act posed a significant risk to the facility’s security.

According to James Bogin, senior supervising attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services, the department has imposed confinement for a variety of reasons, including minor infractions. Fuquan Fields and Luis Garcia, both in their 40s with mental illness diagnoses, are plaintiffs in the suit, each having been sentenced to several hundred days in solitary confinement.

The HALT Act established residential rehabilitation units (RRUs) and expanded programming for prisoners requiring additional intervention after 15 days in solitary confinement. However, DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci noted a significant increase in violence against staff in the first month of the act’s implementation. Assaults on staff rose by 25% since 2021, with 15% occurring in RRUs.

A hearing is scheduled for April 28 as the case progresses. The DOCCS, which has not yet been served, declined to comment on the pending litigation. Despite the one-year preparation period given by lawmakers for the HALT Act’s implementation, staffing shortages have hindered compliance with the new law.

Michael Powers, president of the state Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, argues that the state failed to provide the department with adequate resources to successfully implement the policy. However, advocates maintain that the department is still violating the law, with 22% of prisoners in solitary confinement held for 16 consecutive days or more as of March 1. The United Nations Mandela Rules classify solitary confinement lasting over 15 days as a form of human torture.