Corrections Officers Lose Challenge To Solitary Confinement Settlement

Written on 09/02/2022
Will Aitchison

The New York State Correctional Officer and Police Benevolent Asso­ciation represents corrections officers working for the New York State Depart­ment of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOC). Over the years, the DOC has been sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and other organizations challenging the frequency, duration, and severity of solitary confinement in New York State prisons.

A settlement in the NYCLU litiga­tion resulted in the reduction of the use and conditions of solitary confinement. On March 31, 2021, the State adopted the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), which limits segregated confinement to 15 consecutive days and 20 days within any 60-day period. HALT also bans segregated confinement for indi­viduals who are 21 years or younger or 55 years or older; individuals with a physical, mental, or medical disability; or who are pregnant, in the first eight weeks of post-partum recovery period or caring for a child while in a correc­tional institution.

The PBA sued, alleging that chang­es to solitary confinement from the NYCLU settlement and HALT Act “create a dangerous living and working environment by permitting those incar­cerated individuals who have shown a propensity to violently assault peaceful incarcerated individuals and/or State employees to be placed in congregate settings where they are easily able to repeat such violent acts.” The PBA alleged that, beginning in 2012, there had been a 99.8% increase in violence perpetuated by incarcerated individuals against staff and an 84.6% increase in violence perpetuated by incarcerated individuals against other incarcerated individuals, even though the number of incarcerated individuals decreased by 36.4%.

The PBA also contended that the increase in workplace danger violated their 14th Amendment right to be free from state-created danger.

A federal trial court has recent­ly dismissed the PBA’s lawsuit. The Court held that “the allegation that the HALT Act will lead to an overall higher level of violence in New York prisons is too speculative. The PBA claims that the overall level of violence in New York prisons will rise above a certain unconstitutional threshold, but the reality is that crime is notoriously difficult to predict. The impact on the overall level of violence in New York prisons because of solitary confinement reform simply cannot be predicted by this Court. The assertion that, follow­ing the implementation of the HALT Act, violence in New York prisons will increase is no more than conjecture.

“The PBA’s statistical allegations do not change the Court’s conclusion. Plaintiffs rely solely on a study showing an increase in inmate violence begin­ning in 2012. However, it is difficult for the Court to assume that the in­crease in violence in New York prisons is attributable to any one factor. It is particularly difficult for the Court to attribute the increase in violence solely to solitary confinement reform where the PBA has not provided a compari­son to a jurisdiction in which solitary confinement reform was not enacted.

“Assuming the state-created dan­ger exception applies to governmental workplaces, it is clear that the De­fendants’ actions do not shock the contemporary conscience. In order to shock the conscience and trigger a violation of substantive due process, official conduct must be outrageous and egregious under the circumstances; it must be truly brutal and offensive to human dignity.

“The PBA alleges that the Defen­dants prioritized the safety of DOC’s inmates over that of the COs and violated Plaintiffs’ right to substantive due process through deliberate indif­ference to the implications CO safety of their policy changes. Although the COs perform vital work in an inherently dangerous environment, this attention to the safety of DOC’s inmates, who themselves enjoy a special relationship with the City entitling them to protec­tion pursuant to the due process clause, is exactly the type of competing obligation that makes liability based on the deliber­ate indifference standard inappropriate. Recognition of a viable cause of action based on that standard in this context would essentially impose constitutional liability on DOC for any policy that foreseeably and markedly increased the risks to the safety of either DOC staff or inmates, thereby effectively paralyzing the agency in any action designed to protect either group.”

New York State Correctional Officers and PBA, Inc. v. Hochul, 2022 WL 2180050 (N.D.N.Y. 2022).

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