Class action suit filed against state correction department for violating solitary confinement laws

Lawyers accuse the department of not upholding the 2021 bill placing strict restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for incarcerated people.

The NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit alleging the state Corrections Department continues to illegally keep people in solitary confinement.

The NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit alleging the state Corrections Department continues to illegally keep people in solitary confinement. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners' Legal Services of New York filed a class action lawsuit alleging the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) violated the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) on Wednesday.

The lawsuit, filed in the state supreme court, accuses the department of illegally subjecting inmates to prolonged solitary confinement – naming two plaintiffs, Fuquan Fields and Luis Garcia, who they say represent many inmates who will be placed in extended segregation in the future while under supervision by DOCCS. Both the NYCLU and Prisoners' Legal Services of New York argue DOCCS should be working to uphold the legislation but has failed to do so in the years since its passage. City & State reached out to DOCCS for comment on the lawsuit; a spokesperson responded that the department “does not comment on pending litigation.”

When passed in 2021, the HALT Act made it illegal for incarcerated people to spend more than 15 days in solitary confinement and excluded certain people from being placed in solitary confinement. 

The legislation also implemented alternative rehabilitative measures – including the residential rehabilitation units – and expanded the definition of segregated confinement. At the time of its passage, supporters argued segregated confinement for long periods could cause permanent harm – often pointing to the deaths of individuals like Kalief Browder and Benjamin van Zandt who spent time in solitary confinement before later dying by suicide. Meanwhile, critics and state correction officers have asserted solitary confinement is an effective tool for discipline for increased violence in prisons and reduced morale among staff.

Antony Gemmell, director of detention litigation and a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the agency has been putting thousands of inmates a year in extended periods of solitary confinement and segregation – which is prohibited by the law. “What we are seeing is DOCCS has thrown those very precise limits out of the window. It should not be the case that a state agency is able to just disregard and decide it doesn't want to follow the law,” Gemmell said.

James Bogin, senior supervising attorney of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, said DOCCS had disregarded the key components of the HALT Act and has continued the “traditional practices” of making solitary confinement the default punishment. 

Buried within the text, the HALT Act established specific criteria for the DOCCS to place a person in confinement for longer than three consecutive days. The incarcerated person would have to be taking part in “heinous activity,” such as: causing serious physical harm or death, attempting by force a sexual act with another person and other infractions.  Bogin asserted the department had gone against the specific requirements outlined by the HALT Act, by making all infractions they deem “tier-three” – which are infractions that can be adjudicated at the highest disciplinary hearing – eligible for confinement for more than three days.

“By ignoring the statutory criteria on who goes into confinement, they're effectively undermining the whole law. What we're doing is trying to enforce what the Legislature passed, what the governor signed, and to give just a very basic civics lesson,” Bogin said of the department’s alleged failure to comply with the HALT Act. “The agency does not have the authority to use a policy that is the exact opposite of the one that the legislators selected.”

State Sen. Julia Salazar, who sponsored the HALT Act in 2021, welcomed the class action lawsuit – calling it “necessary” – and asserted the lawsuit was the only way to get DOCCS to comply with the HALT Act in an interview with City & State. The senator said she has witnessed firsthand the violations of the statute when visiting facilities. Salazar said that she’s sent letters to the agency urging them to address the HALT violations, but those letters were met with no response. “I don't think that there's any good excuse for it. The reason for failing to comply is just like a lack of will,” Salazar said.

The senator added: “DOCCS is an institution that is very resistant to change in general. I think it was more convenient for them to simply throw people in solitary confinement and segregated housing when they didn't want to properly deal with a situation.”

Both the New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners' Legal Services of New York are awaiting a response by DOCCS on the class action lawsuit by the April 28 deadline.