The HALT Act caps the amount of time an inmate in New York's prisons or jails can be held in segregated confinement housing to 15 days, or 20 days over a two-month period.
It went into effect April 1.
The state correction officers' union says HALT has contributed to a continued increase in violent assaults on prison staff and removed disciplinary action to prevent additional attacks.
"We've asked legislators to come see the special housing units and residential rehabilitation units that are active — not just a visit, walk in our boots for a week," NYSCOPBA President Michael Powers said.
The union and lawmakers have pushed the Legislature to pass a bill to study violence in state correctional facilities. It did not advance out of committee this session.
Powers said Gov. Kathy Hochul and state officials have been open to listening to officers' concerns, but added: "It's fallen on deaf ears in the [Legislature's] Democratic supermajority."
Assaults on staff in state prisons reached an all-time high in 2021 with 1,177 reported incidents. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reports 558 cases from Jan. 1 to June 1 of this year, which is on pace to meet last year's record.
Powers said people in prison held in Special Housing Units, or solitary housing, get more services in a day than a person in a general prison population, including daily visits with a counselor, religious services and time each day to electronically communicate with family members.”
"Solitary confinement...it agitates me to no end to hear that phrase, because it doesn't exist," Powers said.
Anisah Sabur survived solitary confinement while at Riker’s Island and the Taconic correctional facility in Westchester County.
“Solitary confinement is torture, and the evidence is clear that it leads to more violence both in prisons and after people return to the outside community,” she said. “Some officers want to preserve their Jim Crow system and they are afraid of losing their jobs. Countless people had to suffer and die in solitary for lawmakers to finally act and make this bill a law after nearly a decade of deliberation with all stakeholders. Now, prisons and jails across the state must fully and effectively implement the law and utilize alternatives proven to improve safety and well-being for all. We are prepared to fight to make that happen."
Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) data for 2022 show assaults on prison staff have increased 33% since April 1, or since HALT took effect.
Supporters of the bill say six weeks of data is too little to know how the legislation is working.
"The reaction to that should be, 'How do we do better,' not 'How do we turn back the clock to torturing young people, to putting pregnant people and people that are recently post-partum into solitary confinement,' which is something that HALT stopped," said Jared Trujillo, New York Civil Liberties Union policy counsel.
Assaults in prisons don't have to include physical injury, according to DOCCS, which activists say can skew data.
"Unlike the Penal Law where physical injury is a required element, any attack by an incarcerated individual is classified by DOCCS as an assault," according to the department's monthly reports. "This includes events where no physical injury occurs and events where any object, including a small object, is thrown at and hits another person."
Attacks between incarcerated people have stayed relatively level over the last several years compared to an increase in reported assaults on staff.
HALT also implements alternative rehabilitative measures for people in prison instead of time in a Special Housing Unit.
But Powers said the law left a void without filling it.
"This HALT legislation calls for additional resources, and when they passed this, they didn't pass legislation to give us the additional resources that we needed," Powers said. "So we're doing it, we're doing more with less."
Hochul directed DOCCS to create a Prison Violence Task Force in December to evaluate and develop recommendations to enhance prison safety.
"The safety and well-being of staff and incarcerated individuals is our top priority," DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey said in a statement Monday. "The department has zero tolerance for violence within our facilities and anyone engaged in misconduct will be disciplined, and if warranted, incidents will be referred for outside prosecution."
The department would not answer specific questions about the number of meetings or topics of discussion over the last six months.
Assemblyman Billy Jones, a Democrat from Chateaugay Lake, worked as a corrections officer in several North Country prisons for nearly 20 years. He urged his fellow Democrats in the majority to repeal HALT and not advance other legislation that would further change the disciplinary system. He said he hopes governor's task force studying the recent uptick in violent incidents in prisons will open other Democrats' eyes.
"Violence has risen, contraband has risen ... we have to do something about it," Jones said. "We can't just, you know, turn our head and act like everything's all right because it's not.
"...If there's no disciplinary measures in the correctional facility, it puts everyone at risk."
DOCCS reports 1,477 people in prison housed in Special Housing Units as of May 1, with 286 in segregated confinement and 1,191 in Residential Rehabilitation Units.
The state had 1,617 people in prison in a Special Housing Unit on June 1, 2021.
The total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 30,777 people as of Monday, according to DOCCS — a 58% decline since the department’s peak of 72,773 people in 1999.