ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A new law in New York is drawing some criticism from sheriff’s deputies at the Monroe County Jail.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act, or HALT Act, took effect on April 1st. The legislation, among other things, limits the use of segregated confinement for all incarcerated persons to 15 days.
However, those who work inside the jail are worried the law puts inmates and staff in danger.
“The HALT Act talks a lot about segregation and what you can and cannot do, and it gives a very, very general definition of segregation,” said James McGowan, Major of Operations for Monroe County Jail. “It doesn’t matter where the person is, how big the cell is, how nice it is, if they want to be there or not… if you’re in any cell, and you are not out of that cell for at least seven hours a day, you are considered to be in segregation.”
News 8 spoke with Major McGowan about how often inmates are put in solitary confinement at the Monroe County Jail and why. McGowan said they usually have a handful of individuals confined each day for safety reasons.
“Our mission statement is the safety and security of all the staff, all the inmates, all the civilians, all the volunteers here,” McGowan said. “So if an inmate is acting in a way that is not conducive to that and is a danger to themselves, or danger to others, we have to put them somewhere else so that they’re not hurting other people.”
To show when deputies would confine an inmate, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office has been posting tweets (see below) with videos of inmates attacking deputies over the past few years.
It’s incidents like these that McGowan is worried about becoming more common under the new law.
“If you have a thing where at the end of 20 days in a 60 day period, no matter what, you’re still punching someone in the face, every time you walk inside of a cell, there should be an ability to extend that based on your behavior, because that keeps the rest of the inmate population safe, it keeps the staff safe,” McGowan said. “It also keeps the individual themselves that’s doing the punching safe.”
While McGowan said MCSO wants to do things in the least-restrictive way possible, he believes staff should be able to confine inmates who pose a threat until that threat is gone. Under the new law, he says they won’t be able to make that decision for themselves.
“It doesn’t matter what your behavior was right before you came to jail. It doesn’t matter what your behavior was the last time you were in jail, even if that time was two weeks ago, even if what you just did out on the streets was so egregious that we consider that to be dangerous and a risk, you are not allowed to base decisions to put a person in the segregation on that behavior,” McGowan said.
McGowan also said the new law requires more staff, money and time because more inmates have to be out of their cells and some can’t be around each other so they have to get creative with space.
However, there are also many supporters of the HALT Act, like Senator Jeremey Cooney.
Cooney says solitary confinement is inhumane and that the law doesn’t get rid of confinement, it just limits it.
“We recognize that people have done a wrong, they have to pay and do their time for the act they committed, but this is not a torture chamber,” Senator Cooney said. “This is an opportunity to make sure people get the services they need, so that they can rehabilitate correctly and hopefully reenter society safely and reunite with their families.”
Sen. Cooney said the goal of the law is to move beyond punishment to assistance and rehabilitation. He said this law will go a long way in better supporting inmates.
“One of the things that I really like about the legislation is that it requires ‘out of cell time,’ but not just for recreation, for programming related to treatment,” Cooney said. “So if someone’s struggling with drug addiction, or they’re struggling with mental health issues, this gives those individuals opportunities to better themselves and to get the support that they need, so that they can productively get out of solitary confinement and hopefully be more productive citizens when released.”
However, Cooney also said he’s had many talks with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and understands deputies concerns for safety.
“I recognize and point out the fact that in the legislation, we specifically put in language, that if one incarcerated individual was either doing harm to themselves, or to another person, that that incarcerate individual could be moved out of the general population for 15 days, or even beyond that up to a year, if they were creating a danger for themselves or someone else,” Cooney said.
“I think that’s a really important factor that we’re not putting the hands behind your back of all the sheriff deputies who are in the Monroe County Jail. They still have the ability to separate populations based on public safety.”
Along with a cap on time spent in solitary confinement, the HALT Act also prohibits segregating inmates under the age of 21 and over the age of 55, inmates who have disabilities, chronic mental illness, or are pregnant.
The legislation also requires jail staff receiving training, however Major McGowan said they have not been given any curriculum by the state.
The HALT Act was signed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2021.
You can read the legislation in its entirety by clicking here.