Sweeping Salazar, Souffrant Forrest Bill Targets Rogue Prisons and Jails

The legislation cites multiple New York Focus investigations in its attempt to safeguard the rights of incarcerated people.

Chris Gelardi   ·   December 7, 2023
State Senator Julia Salazar speaks at a podium.
State Senator Julia Salazar speaks at a roundtable regarding immigration detention in Albany on March 2, 2022. | NY Senate photo

State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest announced the introduction of the “Rights Behind Bars” bill on Thursday. Directly citing several New York Focus investigations, the sweeping piece of legislation aims to confront prison and jail policies that limit incarcerated people’s rights and recent instances in which facilities flouted state law.

Among the bill’s measures are amendments that would strengthen the landmark Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, many facets of which the prison system has all but ignored. The bill would also overturn bans on personalized care packages, make prison and jail phone calls free, and attempt to limit impunity for abusive corrections officers.

Yet the bill is “more than a compendium of particular problems that need to be fixed,” Salazar, who heads the Senate’s corrections committee, said in a statement. It seeks to “place the rights of incarcerated people and their families in New York” within the framework of international human rights law. To bolster its restrictions on solitary confinement, for example, it cites United Nations resolutions and international conventions that define prolonged use of the practice as torture. To underscore the importance of keeping people connected with the outside world, it cites the UN’s prisoner treatment directive, better known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.

“This legislation seeks to change the trajectory of our criminal justice system by placing human dignity at its core,” Souffrant Forrest said in a statement.

After the legislative session begins next month, the bill will be considered by Senate and Assembly committees.

Last year, a multi-part New York Focus investigation uncovered myriad ways the state prison system was violating the HALT Solitary Confinement Act — many the result of prison agency policies that directly contradicted the law. Local jails, too, have found ways around the restrictions, as New York Focus recently reported. The Rights Behind Bars bill seeks to force them to follow it by adding more direct language and imposing new requirements.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which runs the state prison system, said it does not comment on pending legislation.

HALT prohibits sending people with disabilities to solitary confinement, yet after the law’s enactment, DOCCS implemented a policy overriding that prohibition. As of November 1, prisons were holding over 200 people with disabilities in solitary, including dozens with mental illnesses so severe they require full-time access to mental health staff. Part of the problem is the definition of an eligible “disability,” which DOCCS has fudged to exclude many diagnoses from the protection, so the Rights Behind Bars bill would add people “with any mental health diagnosis,” those “with any sensorial disability,” and other groups lawmakers say were already covered to its current list of solitary-exempt populations.

The bill would also raise expectations for out-of-cell time, which HALT requires prisons and jails to offer to incarcerated people in isolation. For instance, if guards wanted to handcuff someone during their recreation or classroom time, they would first have to complete a multi-step reporting process explaining why. As New York Focus uncovered, DOCCS previously imposed a policy that required officers to shackle the hands and feet of every person in long-term isolation units while they participated in classroom-style activities, which usually last hours.

And the Rights Behind Bars legislation would establish a rigorous, court-like process — to include time limits, third-party representation, and a fact-finding process — to allow people accused of infractions to defend themselves before being sent to solitary. DOCCS has sent thousands of people accused of nonviolent or non-threatening infractions to isolation, in violation of HALT.

Meanwhile, the bill seeks to confront the officer discipline system that allows guards to abuse incarcerated people with impunity. A Marshall Project investigation from May found that DOCCS often looks the other way when incarcerated people accuse officers of abuse. And when the agency does try to discipline guards, a “blue wall” of silence, a culture of cover-ups, and a powerful union protect them from consequences. Last year, New York Focus and The Intercept exposed this system of impunity in an investigation into an alleged sexual assault at Shawangunk Correctional Facility by two guards, one of whom has a long history of complaints for physical and sexual assault.

Among other measures, the new legislation would deem all corrections staff mandatory reporters, legally requiring them — as teachers, social workers, and other professions are already required — to report abuse they observe.

New York Focus broke the news last year of a DOCCS policy banning most care packages from family and friends. Presented as an effort to curb the flow of contraband, the policy forced people with loved ones in prison to resort to expensive, pre-approved vendors to purchase care packages, on which many incarcerated people rely to obtain healthy food.

“When they banned care packages, they forced me to choose between sending my husband what he needs to be healthy through the profiteering vendors or buying groceries for myself and our daughters,” Caroline Hansen, an organizer with Release Aging People in Prison and New Hour for Women and Children, said in a statement. The policy was met with protests and condemnations from lawmakers.

The Rights Behind Bars bill would reverse the package ban, require facilities to allow daily visits, and mandate regular access to fruits and vegetables. It would require prison and jail canteens to price items at least 60 percent below market rate — a potentially massive reduction. In May, New York Focus documented skyrocketing prison commissary prices: At Attica Correctional Facility, the price of the average food item rose more than 70 percent in less than a year. Most people in DOCCS custody earn between 10 and 65 cents an hour at their prison jobs.

The legislation would also make communications with loved ones free, following the lead of states like California, Minnesota, Colorado, and Connecticut, which recently banned charges for prison phone calls. A 2021 bill sought to do the same, but never became law.

DOCCS currently contracts with tech companies Securus and JPay, charging 3.5 cents per minute for calls and 25 cents for email-like messages, respectively. Some charge more: The Broome County jail’s vendor, for instance, charges 25 cents a minute for video calls, 25 cents for a message (and 50 more for each attached photo), and five cents a minute to use the tablet needed to make the calls and write the messages.

“It’s always hard having a loved one in prison, but I’ve had a giant knot in my stomach like never before since DOCCS started depriving people of the few rights they had left,” Hansen said. “We, the families, will never be silent. We will pass the Rights Behind Bars bill and never give up hope that our loved ones will come safely.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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