Voices from Solitary: At Attica, Hard Hearts and a Sliver of Hope

Prison Officials Are Violating Both the Spirit and the Letter of the HALT Solitary Confinement Law

by | March 12, 2024

In 2021, after 34 years of living in solitary confinement in New York state prisons, William Blake was released into general population. Solitary Watch first encountered Blake, now 60, back in 2013, when we published his essay “A Sentence Worse Than Death.” The essay received more than half a million hits on this site alone, and has been widely reprinted and translated into several languages. Since that first publication, Blake has continued to write about his experience in solitary confinement. 

Blake says he was never provided any mental health treatment for the three decades of torture he endured in solitary confinement. Six months ago, what Blake describes as a psychotic break from the untreated effects of solitary landed him back in isolation at Attica Correctional Facility. Blake found himself in the same unit where he had done “box time” back in the 1980s, previously labeled the Special Housing Unit (SHU) and now called the Residential Rehabilitation Unit (RRU). In this piece, Blake writes about New York prison officials’ failure to adhere to the civil protections promised by the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. —Kilhah St. Fort

• • • • • • • • • •

I am a New York State prisoner presently housed in the Residential Rehabilitation Unit in (RRU) Attica Correctional Facility, and I am serving a disciplinary sentence that up until the passage of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement law—called the HALT law for short—would have found me in a solitary confinement cell. The HALT law was enacted by New York’s legislature to all but end the use of prolonged solitary confinement units in the state’s prisons, limiting the time that a person can now spend there to 15 days. 

From 1987 to 2021, I spent 34 consecutive years in various Special Housing Units (SHUs), the solitary confinement blocks in New York’s prisons. The HALT law didn’t come along in time to spare me the torture that those years were, but it’s here now and it’s supposed to keep anyone from ever again getting put through an experience like what I endured. 

For the most part, RRUs have replaced SHUs. This is a good thing, certainly. It would be much better, though, if prison authorities at Attica and other prisons followed the HALT law, and let go of all remnants of the old SHUs. This would let the hope of the new RRUs shine through to reach the people it was intended to touch.

Not an hour ago, I returned to my cell after spending three full hours outside at “recreation,” in single digit temperatures. My feet were numb, my entire body colder than it had to be, and I was angry. In my cell I had all my personal clothing and footwear, none of which I was allowed to possess during the decades I spent in SHU. 

The provisions of the HALT law, which are outlined in New York Correction Law Section 137, allow inmates to “have access to all of their personal property” while in RRU. The administration of Attica has decided, however, to give the men held in its RRU only some of their property. In an insane twist of the state legislature’s clear intent, Attica’s rule for the RRU is that we can have all our personal clothing and footwear in our cells, but we can wear only state issued clothing and footwear outside of our cells.

I have very good insulated winter boots, but to go outside, I had to wear uninsulated boots given to me by the state. I have nice flannel shirts, and sweatshirts, too. But I could not wear any of these items at recreation. On visits with our friends and family, at the programs we can attend every day, and outside, even if the temperature is a few degrees above zero, it is only the state stuff that is allowed. When I complained about the stupidity of this rule, I was told by one officer: “The law says we have to give you your clothes, it doesn’t say we have to let you wear them.”

For the life of me, I do not believe that this is what our lawmakers had in mind when they wrote the HALT law, and directed prison officials to let individuals have their personal property while in RRU, including their own clothes. 

So I wore prison greens and state boots today, and froze like I never had to.

I also spent all of my three hours at rec in an 8’ x 15’ cage by myself, in a row of eight cages filled with other prisoners, with another row of eight across from the row I was in. We could see each other and talk, but we were all in single-man cages, separated despite our close proximity. 

The HALT law directs prison officials to allow RRU inmates “congregate recreation.” Again, I do not believe New York legislators had cages in mind when they were envisioning congregate rec. Attica’s administrators have simply added their own twist to the mix. 

I could have chosen to attend program this morning, and thereby avoided the biting cold on the outdoors. Trouble is, I am made to wear handcuffs going to program, hands behind the back. I have bad shoulders, and had surgery on one of them less than a year ago. It is painful for me to put my hands behind my back and keep them there for very long. So I have avoided programming in part to avoid the pain of cuffing.

At program, we are also chained to a desk-and-chair combo that has the strange name of a “RESTART chair.” Shackles are put on our ankles and the chain is locked into the RESTART chair, and there we sit for three hours of group sessions, if we choose to attend the entire program. The HALT law, however, tells us that “restraints shall not be used when incarcerated individuals are participating in out-of-cell activities within an RRU,” not unless an “individual assessment” has been made for a particular individual and it is determined that a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk exists to justify their use. Attica’s blanket policy of using mechanical restraints on everyone in the RRU is a violation of the HALT lawanother among a long list of other violations. 

When I returned from the rec cages this morning, I noticed two cups sitting on the window ledge situated directly across the middle gallery from my cell gate. They were the paper cups we are given at mealtime for milk and coffee in the morning, and that we are prohibited from keeping. We have to turn them in when trays are collected after meals. 

As soon as I saw them, I knew the two cups had been taken from my cell while I was at rec, and I became slightly upset over the loss I had just taken. In one of the cups were two hard-boiled eggs, and in the other, milk. I had saved the food and drink from the breakfast meal to eat that evening. It would be my snack for the nightor would have been had a CO not taken them out of my cell. Now the eggs and milk would go in the garbage, for no good reason at all. 

New York Correction Law 137 tells us what RRUs should look like: “All segregated confinement and residential rehabilitation units shall create the least restrictive environment necessary for the safety of incarcerated persons, staff, and the security of the facility.” This is what the law envisions, yet Attica’s RRU is so restrictive, so petty in its application of system’s rules that restrict and debase the lives of the people on the unit, that we are not allowed to keep even a paper cup to drink from in our cells. 

Administrators who run Attica would tell us that cups are not allowed to prevent prisoners from throwing feces and urine on officers. The trouble with this logic is that at the same time, we are allowed to keep a small bucket in our cells to receive hot water twice daily, because the cells have no hot water coming from the sink faucets. We are also allowed to keep shampoo bottles, mouthwash bottles, and jars of face cream and lotion. Any of these items can be used to fling nasty things, so why deny us the cups? There is no legitimate reason. 

Perhaps craziest of all is how people in the RRUs are allowed to buy Kool Aid, cereal, various meats in pouches—all that—but they are not allowed to keep a cup to make the Kool Aid in, or a bowl to eat their cereal from, or anything of the like to mix some tuna fish with mayo for sandwiches. We have to break the rules to keep an innocuous paper cup, and getting a whole other bowl is out of the question. We are not allowed to keep any bowls, cups or eating utensils with our personal property. 

Yes, it’s true. We cannot keep even a plastic spork in our cells, except at meal times. So you break the rule, if you’re able, to eat the cereal you brought in commissary with a spoon, or drink your Kool Aid from a cup. 

No radios or personal headphones, no electronic devices of any kind, are allowed in RRU, and Attica’s administrators will tell you that it’s because there are no electrical outlets in the cells. But that’s not true. On one of the four companies that make up the Attica RRU, the cells do have electrical outlets. Also, my radio runs on batteries, which the RRU “Orientation Manual” says are to be sold in commissary. Yet we are not allowed to possess any device that takes batteries, so batteries are not sold in commissary despite the rules. For certain, Attica officials not only violate New York State law as they fancy, they break their own rules regularly also. 

Headphones require no electricity, so I don’t know the reason for withholding them. I am sure that Attica has an excuse. Instead of being given our personal headphones, we are provided with a cheap set of earbuds that have a three-foot-long cord to them. If they short out or otherwise break, we are charged $1.80 to get a new pair. 

We are not allowed our TVs in RRU. No electricity, again. But on one of the RRU companies there is a TV in every cell, mounted on the wall and encased in a steel box with a thick Plexiglas window. The TVs are never turned on for the residents to watch. Instead, they sit on the wall like some sort of torture device, taunting and teasing, regularly reminding the prisoner about all the TV that he can’t see while he’s wishing that he could. 

We are not allowed to keep our own nail clippers in Attica’s RRU. Instead, we are provided with a community pair to use, but only at shower time. Recently, though, we had no fingernail or toenail clippers on the unit for more than two months. I bit and peeled my fingernails, and my toenails grew to look like claws. Attica cannot find it in its haunted halls or hard heart to let people in the RRU have a simple set of nail clippers, or even to be sure that men have a set to use when they are in the shower. 

But Correction Law 137 mandates we be given all of our personal property, and that the least restrictive environment necessary for the safety of all will be created. Let there be no doubt, officials at Attica are writing their own laws as they please—the laws of New York State be damned. 

“An incarcerated person in a residential rehabilitation unit shall have access to programs and work assignments comparable to core programs and types of work assignments in general population,” Correction Law 137 says. Sounds good, but Attica’s RRU reality is a world away from what the law looks to achieve here. 

The only “program” available in the RRU is what I call a group therapy session that lasts about two hours in the morning, where the participants are chained to the RESTART chair throughout. After a couple of hours, the counselor conducting the session leaves and participants can choose to return to their cells or stay and color. I am not joking. If I stay, I will be given crayons or colored pencils and pages copied from coloring books, and my 60-year-old self can color like I last did more than 50 years ago as a young child.  

As for work assignments, there are none. There is but one porter who covers the entire RRU, and he does very little. The correctional officers usually sweep and mop the floors, pass out the meals, collect empty trays and garbage after meals, and take care of most of the tasks that in general population, porters normally handle. 

I have been in RRU for nearly six months now, and as far as I know, not one periodic review of my status has been prepared, although Correctional Law requires that one be done at least every 60 days if I am not released to general population. To my knowledge, no reviews are being done on anyone in the RRU at Attica. The reviews of our status that the law requires are critically important because they can determine how long a person is confined to the RRU, whether he successfully completes the program or not, and whether he can get back good time credit that he has lost. 

In November of last year, Daniel S. Martuscello III, the commissioner of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), ordered the complete lockdown of Attica, and directed that it be searched from top to bottom, including every individual’s person and cell. Commissioner Martuscello became concerned, he said, due to a series of violent incidents between prisoners and among prisoners and staff. The lockdown lasted a total of nine days, and 58 weapons were reportedly discovered, none in the RRU. 

The perception, from the prisoner’s point of view, is that when the law-breaking going on is being perpetuated by the incarcerated people, action is usually swift and severe. This is not the case, however, when it is the authorities themselves who are violating the law. Complaints to the administration and grievances being filed fall on deaf ears, doing nothing to persuade officials to comply with the law and their own regulations. 

There is an air to Attica that is toxic, and it seems to poison everyone who breathes it. The prison is a hate factory, and when you live here you feel it powerfully. When I call to a sergeant or a lieutenant or some other higher ranking official who is passing by my cell and am ignored like I don’t exist, or I do but am not worthy of acknowledgement, I feel the feelings. When I write grievances, and send them to a grievance committee that is a joke, in no way funny, and that rarely resolves anything that’s something, I feel the feelings that hypocrisy often engenders, especially when it is people in power telling me to obey their laws and follow their rules while I am helpless to get them to respect those self-made laws and rules at all. 

I have read the words of prison authorities and officials of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), blaming the HALT law for most of the prison system’s problems of late. Since the authorities are in large measure not even obeying the HALT law, it does not stand to reason that the law is the issue. More likely, it is the lack of compliance with the HALT law that is the bigger problem.

Prison officials claim to want to instill in prisons a respect for the law, but how can that happen when they are showing the same incarcerated people that the authorities themselves have no respect or regard for their own laws? 

In September 1971, the men incarcerated at Attica rose up in protest of the conditions that they were being forced to live under, and for four days held the fort. When the authorities stormed the prison to regain control, 29 incarcerated men and ten of their hostages were shot dead by state police and correction officers. In the aftermath, prisoners were systematically tortured by those same law enforcement personnel. It took officials years to admit they had done any wrong. 

I have heard about the memorial ceremony done in the front of the prison every year on September 13, in remembrance of the correctional officers who died in the uprising. I’ve also heard stories among the prisoners telling of guards who have adopted as their mantra, “Never again.” Other stories from the prisoners tell us how we need another one, another riotand back and forth it goes, hatred of a terrible type kept alive over the decades. 

I am an optimist by nature, but I have serious doubts about Attica ever being fully fixed other than emptying it and blowing it from its foundations into tiny bits and planting flowers on the ground where it once stood. I don’t like thinking so negatively, though. I prefer to keep hope alive, even if it’s only a sliver. I know from experience that a sliver of light is sometimes all it takes to start to see windows thrown open wide for light to come pouring through. 

The culture of hate and law-breaking that persists at Attica could be curtailed, but it has to start at the top so it can work its way down. From the superintendent and her deputies to the guards on the blocks, regulations and rules must be respected and followed. When the law says to give the RRU prisoner his property, give it to him. Where HALT requires programs and work assignments in RRU be comparable to those in general populations, create those jobs and programs.

When prison authorities are following the law and granting incarcerated people the privileges and programs that they are entitled to, there will be better men and women in the prisonsand better people being released back into society when their time has come, when their time is done.


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  • AJ Smith

    Perphaps there should be mention of Billy Blakes crime and the actions he took while on trial. He is a very serious security threat with poor disciplinary record. There are 2 sides to every story.

  • DavidOdom

    As a former incarcerated individual, recently released on December 19th 2023. I can tell you from my own experience that the R.R.Us are all ran corrupt lyrics. The law that passed and on paper is exactly that (on paper). I was in the rru at 2 different facilities Washington correctional, and Mohawk correctional facilities. Those are 2 medium security prisons, and at most medium security prisons there are no cameras in the entire unit. I saw men starved for days. I saw men sprayed with the fire hose in there cells and left to freeze for hours with the windows open. Many of these incarcerated individuals were very young black and Latino men. They would scream and bang for hours and know one would come to help them. In these places the over head lights are left on 24 hours a day. I’m not going to say all but many of the correction officers are racists. They constantly use derogatory words to talk to people. Like I said, there are no cameras so they can get away with anything. God forbid someone tries to stop a superior like a seargent, lieutenant, or even the superintendent. That would be a huge mistake that would result in severe punishment. I’m glad light is being shed on these issues. I always said when I get out I’m going to shed light and expose these things. I want to be a person who helps change the prison system as a whole so that men and woman can come out and be better, loving empathetic people who don’t come back. I am currently working with the fortune society to become a counselor for drug abuse. I want to give back, and make a difference. God bless all the men and women that are still inside. I hope and pray you all make it out soon. And thankyou for shedding light on these issues and giving me a voice to do the same. David Odom ( formerly 20r0350)

  • This is so typical of prison systems throughout the U.S. Attica is but one example. The entire situation begs the question: Who is worse—the keepers or the kept?

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