Solitary By Another Name: How New York Prisons Are Using ‘Therapeutic’ Units to Evade Reform
New York’s landmark solitary confinement reform law created a new, “rehabilitative” type of isolation unit. State prisons aren’t on board with the changes.
Chris Gelardi Oct 05, 2022
This story was published in partnership with New York Focus. Read more in their investigative series on New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.
When it’s time for Leroy Burton to attend the “therapeutic” classroom time offered to his unit at Upstate Correctional Facility, a state prison at the northern tip of New York, he puts his hands through a slot in the door to his cell. An officer on the other side cuffs his wrists, then opens the door so a second officer can pat Burton down, connect the handcuffs to a chain, wrap the chain around his waist, and use it as a leash to walk him down the hall. When they get to the room where the therapeutic programming is held, the officers order Burton to kneel on a box so they can place another pair of cuffs around his ankles. They guide him to his seat and shackle him to a table, where he stays for the duration of the classroom time — usually over two hours, he said.
Shackling is the rule, not the exception, for the more than 1,400 people incarcerated daily in units like Burton’s across the state. The prison agency has instructed superintendents to use restraints for all of them, despite state law that bans the practice without individualized safety assessments.
The units, known as residential rehabilitation units (RRUs), are a creation of a recent prison reform law, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which limits the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails.
The HALT Act invented RRUs — and set strict standards for them — so facilities, in theory, could have a relatively humane and rehabilitative place away from the general population to send those whom they are no longer allowed to keep in solitary. But in practice, state prisons are neglecting to follow the rules HALT imposed on RRUs — in some cases making them little better than the solitary confinement cells they’re supposed to replace.
RRUs and solitary confinement units together hold close to 2,000 people each day, more than the roughly 1,750 that were held in solitary before HALT went into effect.
Among HALT’s rules is a ban on placing restraints on RRU residents when they’re participating in out-of-cell activities; the only exception is if officials make an “individual assessment” that not cuffing someone would pose a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk. But New York Focus and The Appeal have found that, for more than five of the six months that HALT has been in effect, the prison system’s policy has been to shackle every one of the hundreds of RRU residents during out-of-cell activities, like they do to Burton.
“It’s really dehumanizing,” said Julia Salazar, chair of the state Senate’s corrections committee and lead sponsor of HALT. “They just want to do the easiest thing, not the most humane thing, when it comes to implementation” of the law.
For out-of-cell time, HALT mandates that facilities offer RRU residents at least seven hours a day, and that it must take place in a congregate setting with other incarcerated people. But men incarcerated in four different prisons told New York Focus and The Appeal that they rarely get anywhere near that much time out of their cell, and a vast majority of their out-of-cell hours consist of either time alone in a small outdoor cage or indoor activities during which they’re shackled to a table.
“[The prisons] don’t want an RRU unit where they can help people,” said Anisah Sabur, an organizer with the HALT Solitary campaign who recently visited an RRU. “They want to be in a space where you keep people locked in 23 hours a day.”
The revelations about RRUs follow two New York Focus investigations that found that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, is routinely violating the core tenets of HALT.
Whereas HALT bars facilities from keeping people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days, prisons have kept hundreds of people in solitary for longer than that since the law went into effect. HALT also prohibits putting people with disabilities in solitary confinement, but prisons have sent hundreds of people with mental or physical ailments to solitary, including dozens with the highest levels of health care needs.
In response to the investigations, DOCCS asserted that “continued allegations that the Department has intentionally violated any of the parameters of the HALT Act are patently false.”
According to Burton and other incarcerated people, prison staff have been attributing many of the HALT-violating practices, including the shackling of RRU residents, to orders from “Albany,” where DOCCS is headquartered.
“How are you going to listen to ‘Albany’ before you listen to the law?” wondered Burton.
‘Albany Said We Got to Handcuff You’
When it comes to RRUs — as with other aspects of HALT — DOCCS has spun a tangled web of contradictory policies and procedures: It has neglected to add HALT-compliant language to its departmental regulations, published directives and manuals that do mostly adhere to the law, and privately circulated an internal policy that seemingly violates HALT and contradicts the department’s own public directives.
The result is apparent widespread violations of HALT, as well as confusion among incarcerated people about how they’re supposed to be treated in RRUs.
DOCCS had a year from when former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed HALT into law to when the law went into full effect at the end of March. But the department waited until just a week before HALT’s enactment to propose updates to its own rules and regulations to comply with the law.
As a coalition of 56 legislators pointed out in a June letter to DOCCS, the department’s proposed regulations only mention RRUs once, and fail to include any of the standards HALT set for the units. Among the regulations’ omissions are any mention of HALT’s rule against shackling RRU residents during their out-of-cell time.
“DOCCS must revise the regulations to include all of the requirements for the RRUs required by HALT,” the legislators wrote.
DOCCS has yet to rework the proposed regulations. (The department said that it is “in the process of carefully reviewing” public comments on them.) But less than two weeks after the legislators’ sent their letter, DOCCS published a directive outlining RRU procedures and a “program manual” for RRUs, both of which incorporated most facets of HALT.
Yet despite those public-facing documents, incarcerated people report that DOCCS has ignored much of HALT’s stipulations for RRUs, including the rule against shackling residents during their out-of-cell time.
Burton, who has been in an RRU since shortly after the new units went online in April, said corrections officers have attributed the often-changing procedures to DOCCS headquarters: “‘Oh, now we got to handcuff you around the back.’ ‘Oh no, now Albany said we got to handcuff you and put the chains on.’ ‘Oh no, Albany said we got to put the shackles on.’”
Ahmed Greene, who has been housed in an RRU at Five Points Correctional Facility since April, said that prison staff shackle Five Points RRU residents to a table whenever they participate in indoor activities.
“When they have ‘program,’ you’re shackled to the table for three hours,” said Greene. “And when you come out for so-called ‘indoor recreation,’ you’re shackled to the table — can’t play cards, can’t play chess, nothing.” As a result, most people now decline to go to indoor recreation when given that option, he said.
Asked about the shackling, DOCCS told New York Focus and The Appeal that the department ordered prison superintendents to cuff all people in RRUs whenever they are “under escort and while participating in out-of-cell programming.” DOCCS said that the order is “in line with a provision of the HALT Law,” but it seemingly contradicts the requirement — outlined in HALT and DOCCS’s own directives and forms — that prisons come to an “individual” determination about someone’s safety risks before overriding the no-shackling rule.
When asked for a copy of the order to superintendents, DOCCS directed New York Focus and The Appeal to submit a public records request, which the department often takes months to fulfill. DOCCS did not answer questions about when it issued the order.
According to both Burton and Greene, staff began shackling people in their units (and attributing the practice to “Albany”) around mid-April — less than three weeks after HALT went into effect. They say the policy has remained in place uninterrupted for the past five months, suggesting that DOCCS published a mostly HALT-compliant public directive while privately ordering prisons to seemingly violate the law.
Salazar, the Senate corrections committee chair, said that her office was unaware of the internal DOCCS order to shackle RRU residents.
“There’s a presumption against [restraints],” Salazar said. “So for them to just issue a directive that’s not on a case-by-case basis, … I think it’s disingenuous.”
According to DOCCS, “any decision to implement new policies is not made arbitrarily, nor is it taken lightly.” The department said that it handed down the shackling order in response to “an escalation of violence that has occurred in not only RRUs, but other areas of the facilities.” The claim echoes complaints from corrections officers unions, which have launched an aggressive campaign to repeal HALT, arguing that prolonged solitary confinement is a crucial tool in preventing prison violence.
Some have raised questions about prisons’ claims of increased violence since HALT went into effect. As The Nation reported in August, DOCCS data show that, while officer write-ups for assaults on staff and incarcerated people increased (unevenly) in the months after HALT’s implementation, few of the allegedly assaulted staff reported sustaining significant injuries, and incarcerated people report officers frequently instigating violence themselves.
The Correctional Association of New York, an independent organization given authority under state law to monitor prisons, has issued six reports this year after visiting state facilities. (All of the visits took place before HALT went into effect.) During all of the visits, incarcerated people reported patterns of violence and abuse by staff.
According to Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association, the organization has been questioning DOCCS about its claims of upticks in assaults, prompting DOCCS to invite the Correctional Association to the next meeting of its prison violence task force later this month. Scaife said having “a seat at the table” will allow her organization to better gauge the relationship between HALT and prison violence.
‘They’re Trying to Circumvent the HALT Law Every Chance They Get’
Upstate Correctional Facility, where Burton is incarcerated, used to be one of New York’s “supermax” prisons — facilities dedicated to housing people in long-term isolation. Another supermax, Southport Correctional Facility, closed down shortly before HALT went into effect, its residents among the hundreds in state prisons the law has spared from prolonged solitary.
Meanwhile, Upstate has essentially become a large-scale RRU, with some 70 percent of its population housed in residential rehabilitation units. However, beyond the shackling rule, incarcerated people report that prisons have been ignoring other standards that HALT set for RRUs.
HALT mandates that facilities offer RRU residents seven hours of out-of-cell time, including therapeutic programming and recreation. But incarcerated people report only receiving a fraction of that.
According to Burton, prison staff open up recreation for RRUs at 8:00 every morning — but then close it within two hours. What’s more, they schedule the recreation time and classroom programming so they overlap, forcing residents to choose between the two. Whichever they choose, the Upstate RRU residents are only able to get out of their cells for around two hours a day — less than even the four HALT mandates for those in solitary confinement.
According to Greene, Five Points has done away with much of its RRU programming, stripping the RRU residents of roughly three hours of daily out-of-cell time. “Right now, we’re lucky if we get program once a week,” he said.
“So what’s the difference between being in SHU and being in RRU?” Greene asked, using the acronym for the prison system’s term for solitary confinement.
According to DOCCS, “all incarcerated individuals in RRUs are offered, but not obligated to take, the designated amount of out-of-cell time each day.” The department claimed that no one has filed grievances related to a lack of out-of-cell time.
But Greene told New York Focus and The Appeal that he and others at Five Points have filed several grievances related to conditions in the RRU. He said that, when sending grievances up the chain of command, corrections officers rewrite them to misconstrue what incarcerated people are actually complaining about.
For example, Greene said, he recently filed a grievance complaining that staff often bring phones to the RRU during programming or recreation time, forcing RRU residents to choose between using the phones and getting out of their cells. But when he received a response dismissing his grievance, he noticed that the summary of the grievance sent to prison supervisors only stated that he complained about not being able to use the phone on one specific day. “That wasn’t my grievance,” Greene said.
“No matter what you write, they’ll rewrite it in a way that it can be denied or dismissed,” he said.
HALT also mandates that RRU recreation time “take place in a congregate setting,” except in “exceptional circumstances” that create a safety risk. But Greene and Burton assert that their daily recreation time takes place in an outdoor cage that’s connected to their cell — and roughly the same size as it.
“They call it the rec pen — it’s a little pen in the back of the cell,” said Burton. “But I don’t even know if I consider this rec, because I’m still in the cell.”
Greene said Five Points RRU residents get congregate recreation time in the main prison yard once a week, but the rest of the time it takes place alone in the rec pen.
Two other men incarcerated in other types of non-solitary isolation units — which are supposed to, at minimum, adhere to the rules HALT sets for RRUs — have told New York Focus that their recreation time also takes place in small pens connected to their cells.
“We go from one concrete enclosure to another concrete enclosure,” said one of the men, who is incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility. “We have no congregate activities or programs whatsoever,” said the other, incarcerated at Attica prison.
When it comes to the classroom programming, HALT mandates that it be “trauma-informed” and “therapeutic,” with the goal of “promoting personal development, addressing underlying causes of problematic behavior resulting in placement in” an RRU. But the quality of programming varies widely from prison to prison.
According to Burton and the man at Mid-State, their programming mostly consists of filling out packets of worksheets, which Burton called “childish and incriminating.” One of the worksheets asked about the first crime Burton ever committed. “Why would I tell you that?!” he exclaimed. The man at Mid-State said one of the worksheets asked about his favorite food.
Greene, on the other hand, spoke highly of his programming instructor, even though he’s only able to see her once a week.
“She actually advocates for us — for them to follow the HALT law,” he said. “She gets frustrated with it too, because she understands that this is supposed to be a real rehabilitative program.”
As part of the “therapeutic” nature of RRUs, HALT also mandates that staff conduct reviews of residents’ time in the units every 60 days — “to assess the person’s progress and determine if the person should be discharged from the unit.” But Greene said that he has never received such a review, despite asking for one and being housed in the unit for more than five months.
DOCCS countered his claim, asserting that “RRU reviews are completed at least every 60 days.”
Greene doesn’t buy it. “They’re trying to circumvent the HALT law every chance they get,” he said.
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