When people put their lives on the line just by going to work every day, politicians should listen to them when they say they fear for their safety.
Among the most dangerous professions in our state — along with police officers and firefighters — is correctional officer in a state prison.
And state correctional officers are begging state officials to hear their concerns about a new law that goes into effect early next year that would substantially restrict the use in prisons of solitary confinement, also referred to as segregated confinement.
Even as the prison population in the state continues to shrink, as demonstrated by a recent state proposal to close six prison facilities, violent acts against correctional officers continue to escalate.
Traditional solitary confinement — in which an inmate is placed in a cell for days or weeks or even years with limited access to others — is one tool prison officials have used to remove the most violent inmates from the general prison population.
Many human rights advocates, mental health professionals and prison reform experts say the practice has been abused by the system over the years; contributes to even more violent crime within prisons by making isolated prisoners even more violent when they’re returned to the general population; and can lead to severe psychosis and suicide even after short periods of isolation, particularly for young inmates and those with existing mental illnesses.
Those concerns are the impetus behind the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), a state law passed earlier this year that goes into effect in April.
When the law (A2277/S2836) takes effect, it will limit the time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement, will end solitary confinement for vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in such confinement, improve conditions of confinement and create more humane and effective alternatives to such confinement, according to the text of the law.
One provision is a 15-day cap on how much time an inmate can spend in solitary and the creation of new, isolated rehabilitation units to transition individuals back to the general population through specialized services.
Another provision of the bill restricts solitary confinement for inmates age 18 to 21.
Representatives of state correctional officers claim the law could lead to even more violence against officers, exacerbating a problem that’s already reaching critical levels. Correctional officers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state in May seeking to overturn the legislation. That case is still pending.
Correctional officers say the public has an inaccurate image of solitary confinement from movies such as “The Shawshank Redemption” and from solitary confinement opponents. The perception of inmates being thrown in a tiny, cold, dark cell without light, human contact or recreation time for months and years, and fed only bread and water, is an archaic representation of solitary confinement that hasn’t existed in many years, they claim.
The president of the correctional officers union said earlier this year that inmates in segregated housing have access to all the same amenities as when they are in general population, including access to one-on-one counseling and access to the library, radio and tablets.
The correctional officers say the 15-day limit on solitary confinement in the new law doesn’t provide enough time for inmates to cool down after an altercation. They also object to the restriction on placing 18- to 21-year-olds in solitary, as that age group is often among the most violent offenders.
Supporters of the bill say it still allows prison officials to separate inmates for extended periods while ensuring they get the therapy they need to address dangerous behavior.
So who’s right?
Are the officers making too much of the changes and are they unnecessarily worried about the impact of the law? What are the real reasons for the spike in violence in prisons, and do they have anything to do with solitary confinement?
Or did supporters of the bill paint an unfair and outdated image of solitary confinement to make their case, and were they too dismissive of the concerns expressed by correctional officers?
State lawmakers owe it to these officers to find out before a potentially dangerous law whose flaws might have been overlooked takes effect.
One need look no further than bail and discovery reform laws to see that state lawmakers don’t always consider all the potential consequences when passing laws.
Then they have to go back and amend the legislation when they find out it’s not working as expected.
Why not get ahead of these potential problems with solitary confinement reform by holding a hearing in which all sides present their evidence and make their case?
Lawmakers should schedule tours of state prisons so they can see for themselves and effectively evaluate the state’s solitary confinement practices.
They should visit with the people who do this job day in and day out to understand their concerns and fears.
Then go back over the legislation to see if some portions of it need to be rewritten or eliminated before it takes effect next year.
Lawmakers have plenty to gain by revisiting the law now, and nothing to lose but some time.
If correctional officers say they fear for their lives from this legislation, don’t our representatives in Albany at least owe them a chance to demonstrate why?