These Labor Unions Are Fighting to Keep Solitary Confinement

A Corrections Officers’ Union in New York Is Campaigning Against New Restrictions on Solitary Confinement—and It’s Not the Only Union in the Country Opposing Prison Reform

by | August 16, 2022

Photo: Alicia Barraza, whose 21-year-old son died by suicide while held in solitary confinement, speaks to other advocates gathered in the New York State Capitol in 2020 to lobby state legislators to pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. (Courtesy of the #HALTsolitary campaign.)

This article is co-published with The Nation.

On February 13, at Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York, Robert Adams had a fight with another incarcerated man while returning from recreation. As Adams explained it, officers moved to break them up, with one pepper spraying Adams in the face before handcuffing him. Another officer taunted him, saying, “You got your ass kicked.” Adams, still handcuffed, told him to mind his business. In response, he said, the first officer punched him several times in the face, splitting his lip. 

According to Adams, officers brought him to the prison’s medical unit, where he was treated, then placed him in solitary confinement in what is euphemistically called the Special Housing Unit, or SHU. They issued a misbehavior report for assault on staff and sentenced him to eight months in solitary. The other man received 35 days in the SHU for fighting him. 

But Adams ended up spending only a month in the SHU. In March, the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act went into effect. Hailed as the most progressive in the country, it limits solitary confinement in New York prisons to no more than 15 consecutive days. 

On March 16, Adams was handcuffed, shackled, and transferred to Orleans Correctional Facility, which had converted its former 200-bed segregation unit into a Residential Reentry Unit (RRU), mandated by the HALT Solitary law as an alternative to solitary confinement. It was an early sign that, after decades of using solitary at rates above the national average, some change might be coming to New York’s prisons and jails.

But the unions representing the state’s correctional officers have been doing their utmost to put a halt to HALT. They currently appear unlikely to succeed—but if they do, Adams and 1190 others now held in RRUs across the state would be returned to SHUs, where they would spend at least 23 hours each day locked into their cells alone. 

Union Opposition

Back in May 2021, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), which represents state correctional and police officers, filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the HALT Solitary law, arguing that it violates their members’ civil rights. One year later, in mid-June 2022, federal district judge Mae D’Agostino dismissed their suit. She wrote that the union’s claim that the state was constitutionally obligated to use solitary for people under age 21, over age 55, or for more than 15 days at a time “ strains credulity.”  

But NYSCOPBA had already launched its Repeal HALT campaign, calling the new law “directly responsible for the skyrocketing violence” in the state’s prisons and urging lawmakers to repeal it. While DOCCS did not address the union’s allegation, advocates questioned the claims of rising violence. In fact, in other jurisdictions that have significantly reduced their use of solitary confinement, research has shown an overall reduction in prison violence and improvements in health and well-being among both incarcerated people and staff.

The following month, after a melee at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, the union circulated a press release reiterating its position. “All the HALT Act has done is taken an already violent environment filled with inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate attacks, and made it worse,” union rep John Roberts stated in the press release. “The Legislature needs to address this immediately and stop turning a blind eye to the violence that is occurring before something tragic happens.”

Union opposition to reforms limiting solitary is not new, or unique to New York. A decade ago in Illinois, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) challenged then-Governor Pat Quinn’s order to close Tamms, the state’s notorious supermax prison where men were kept in long-term solitary confinement. AFSCME, which represents Illinois prison employees, opposed the closure, arguing that Tamms was necessary to maintaining prison safety and security and to keep jobs in southern Illinois, despite the fact that all of the union members employed at Tamms had been guaranteed jobs in other prisons. 

Even when proposed reforms do not portend prison closures or lower staffing levels, unions representing jail and prison employees have opposed them. In New York City’s jails, where officers outnumber incarcerated people, the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) has continually opposed measures to limit time in solitary, filling hearings and arguing that the threat of isolation prevents assaults. (They have also opposed a federal takeover of Rikers Island.)  

In Connecticut, AFSCME Local 387, which represents correctional officers, opposed the PROTECT Act, which would have limited solitary to 15 consecutive days and guaranteed at least 6 ½ hours out of cell each day. AFSCME Local 387 president declared that the additional out-of-cell time would place staff and incarcerated people at risk, and Democratic Governor Ned Lamont repeated the union’s reasons when he vetoed the act. An amended version, requiring four hours out of cell, passed this year without union opposition. 

The Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers (RIBCO) has opposed S2631, a bill limiting the use of solitary. Its president, Richard Feruccio, testified against the bill at a Senate hearing and—in a move many found unconscionable—released the prison records of the formerly incarcerated people who had testified in favor of the bill at a previous hearing. 

Unions’ opposition to limits on solitary seems out of step with their embrace of progressive issues, including racial justice. In June 2020, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has chapters representing police and correctional officers, passed a resolution vowing to align with the goals of the Movement for Black Lives. “We must divest from and demilitarize the police and invest in and build Black communities, not demonize and criminalize them,” the resolution stated. Among their commitments, the SEIU included a pledge of “holding public security unions accountable to racial justice.” SEIU did not respond to repeated queries about solitary confinement or prison issues. 

While national unions are publicly embracing racial justice, they have remained silent about the racial bias of their correctional officer brethren. People of color, particularly Black people, are not only disproportionately incarcerated throughout the United States but also disproportionately punished with solitary. A 2021 study of Pennsylvania’s prisons found that Black men are more than eight times as likely to be placed in solitary confinement than white men, while a separate study by Disability Rights North Carolina found that Black people are nearly seven times more likely to be in extreme isolation than their white counterparts.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) represents 700,000 federal and DC government workers, including more than 30,000 federal prison employees. In response to queries by Solitary Watch and The Nation, Tim Kauffman of the AFGE said that the union, as a whole, has not weighed in on solitary confinement, prison conditions, or prison reforms. He pointed to its legislative priorities to increase staffing within federal prisons, replace mail with photocopies, prohibit the Bureau of Prisons from expanding the use of private prisons, and impose harsher punishments, including use of the death penalty, on incarcerated people who harm or kill prison staff. 

AFGE’s silence on solitary confinement has not necessarily mollified its chapters that represent law enforcement. In July, AFGE announced that it was conceding to demands for separation by AFGE Council 118, which represents thousands of ICE agents and was one of the few unions to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign. Council 118 president Chris Cane had previously charged that the national union had become a far-left organization.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO, which ignored requests for comment, has resolved to defend the rights of and embrace all union members, regardless of political leanings, professions, and uniforms, even as it has opposed prison labor and for-profit prisons. Thirteen law enforcement unions are among its ranks.  In 2020, as demands to defund the police swept the nation and public imagination, the AFL-CIO convened a task force on racial justice. The following year, that task force convened a policing subcommittee, which included the International Union of Police Associations. That subcommittee issued a Public Safety Blueprint for Change, rejecting calls to defund or abolish the police, and instead proposed a program encouraging officers to break the blue wall of silence when they see abuses. 

Paint by Numbers

The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) classifies assault as any attack by an incarcerated individual, even if no physical injury occurs. By this classification, assaults—against both staff and other incarcerated people–have been increasing. But advocates note that these numbers paint a skewed picture.

As of July 1, 2022, DOCCS recorded 699 assaults against staff, compared to 1,177 in 2021 and 1,047 in 2020. It recorded 691 assaults on other incarcerated people, compared to 1,108 in 2021 and 1,205 in 2019. Although the law was in effect for only three months when these statistics were compiled, unions representing New York’s jail and prison employees blame HALT for the increased violence. 

Jack Beck, former director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York, notes that prison officers have unfettered discretion on what charge(s) to level against a person. “There’s no accountability,” he told Solitary Watch and The Nation. “No one is disciplined for writing too many tickets.” And, on the rare occasion when a ticket is dismissed at a hearing, the officer who wrote the ticket faces no consequences. 

While the number of tickets for assault on staff has increased in 2022, nearly 74 percent of staff involved reported no injury while just 2 percent reported a moderate, serious, or severe (as opposed to minor) injury. For staff who intervened in assaults between incarcerated people, nearly 98 percent reported no injury, 2 percent reported a minor injury, and one person reported a moderate injury. Clearly, the recorded increase in violence reflects an increase in ticketing, not necessarily an uptick in attacks.

Beck also noted that it’s not unusual for officers to write tickets charging that an incarcerated person assaulted staff to cover up their own violence. In 2016, for instance, federal prosecutors indicted five New York correctional officers with brutally beating a man at Downstate Correctional Facility and then conspiring to justify their actions by falsely charging him with assault. 

Beck points to another reason that correctional officers’ unions have opposed reforms to solitary. “New York has by far the richest number of security staff in the nation,” he stated, with 17,015 staff for 30,817 incarcerated people—or a nearly one-to-two ratio. As its prison population declined by over 40,000 from 72,649 in 1999, the state has been shuttering prisons, reducing the need for security staff. 

But the specter of violence—whether in response to criminal justice reforms keeping people out of prisons or to laws changing internal practices—allows officers, and their unions, to argue for keeping, if not increasing, staffing levels. 

“This Is SHU 2.0”

According to DOCCS, the new Residential Reentry Units are not meant to be punitive. Instead, the agency’s December 20 memo states: “Such units shall be therapeutic and trauma-informed and aim to address individual treatment, rehabilitation needs, and underlying causes of problematic behavior.” Furthermore, people in RRU are supposed to be offered seven hours of out-of-cell programming. 

That’s not what Adams is experiencing. He spends most of his day in a cell with an adjoining recreation pen. He is allotted only one hour in that pen during weekdays. On weekends, he can spend up to four hours in the pen by himself.

“This is just SHU 2.0,” Adams told Solitary Watch and The Nation. “A dog’s kennel is bigger than this.”

In the morning, officers escort him to a classroom for the required program. There, his feet are shackled together and fastened to the floor beneath his desk. Only then are his handcuffs removed. With eight to ten other men, he spends the three-hour class shackled to the floor.  

On weekday afternoons, he can participate in what’s called “therapeutic rec”—in which he and others are shackled to the floor in the day room to watch three hours of TV and movies. If he chooses to go, Adams misses the window of time in which officers distribute tablets allowing people to make phone calls from their cells. Most days, he chooses to stay in his cell and talk with his family. 

Adams’ experience is not unusual. Jerome Wright, co-director of the HALT Solitary campaign, said that the campaign has heard similar complaints from people in other RRUs. “HALT is not just about how much out-of-cell time you do, but also about programming,” he said. But in the RRUs, programs such as anger management and substance abuse treatment are not offered, leaving people like Adams with little to do. 

“The whole goal is to have programming so people don’t get traumatized too much and they have options and opportunities when they get back to [the general prison] population,” Wright said.

While DOCCS did not address NYSCOPBA accusations that HALT has increased violence, it did tell Solitary Watch and The Nation that it has convened a steering committee to implement the law, and “hope[s] that the out-of-cell programming offered in the Residential Rehabilitation Units…will have a positive effect on the population and lead to safer correctional facilities across the state.”

Despite the RRU’s shortcomings, Adams is glad that the union’s lawsuit failed. He noted that HALT still significantly limits segregation time and the charges that can land a person in isolation, protections that were previously absent. 

“Before HALT, they were giving out SHU time like it was nothing,” he said. “They were completely abusing their discretion.” In 2015, he recalled, “I got into it with an officer, he put his hands on me and I defended myself. They gave me 700 days in the box. I did 675 days out of 700 days…I didn’t get out of the box until 2017.”  

Photo: Alicia Barraza, whose 21-year-old son committed suicide while held in solitary confinement, speaks to other advocates gathered in the New York State Capitol in 2020 to lobby state legislators to pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. (Courtesy of the #HALTsolitary campaign.)

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