This is what happens when the state Legislature procrastinates on a potential problem until it turns into an actual problem.
In the wake recent violence at state prisons, a number of state lawmakers are pushing for legislation to repeal the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, a bill that took effect in April that placed stricter limits on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.
State Sen. Dan Stec of Queensbury has sponsored a bill (S9378) to repeal parts of the HALT Act (Local Sens. Jim Tedisco and Daphne Jordan are cosponsors.), citing statistics that indicate a potential record year in inmate attacks on correction officers. Most recently, on Father’s Day, 15 officers were injured in an altercation with inmates at the maximum-security Great Meadow prison in Washington County.
Leaders of the union representing state correction officers have also reiterated the need to revisit the law, which limits the use of solitary (or segregated) confinement to 15 days, implements alternative rehabilitation measures, and eliminates the use of the practice for the mentally ill and younger inmates.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement can lead to severe emotional, mental and behavioral problems when applied for periods longer than 15 days. Studies also question its effectiveness as a disciplinary tool. Restoring solitary confinement to the degree it was used in the past should not be considered.
But as we said in November, six months before the bill took effect, there should be consideration for how the changes impact safety at prisons and whether the law needs to be modified to ensure the safety of guards and other inmates. For that, we argued, lawmakers need to hold hearings on the actual impact it would have before it took effect.
But they didn’t do that. Now, with continued violence in the prisons, they’re facing new calls to scale back on the reforms.
Stec’s bill should serve as the jumping-off point for those renewed discussions.
The first thing lawmakers need to address is the cause-and-effect of the law.
Are modifications to solitary confinement really contributing to the increased violence or preventing prison officers from getting the violence under control? Or is there no or little correlation? In essence, would repealing the changes improve safety or not?
One also has to consider whether this repeal effort is part of a political maneuver by state Republicans to make Gov. Kathy Hochul and other Democrats look soft on crime as they come up for election in November.
The only way to find out is for lawmakers to debate the merits of the Senate repeal bill and to offer evidence on both sides about whether changes to solitary confinement are having an impact on violence or not.
If they are, then lawmakers need to make adjustments, perhaps by making more inmates eligible for special housing (such as younger, violent inmates) or including more actions that necessitate such punishment.
Give lawmakers, correction officers and the public the peace of mind of knowing the truth.