ALBANY — Opponents of the state prison system's use of solitary confinement to discipline misbehaving inmates say they are making headway at the statehouse with their push to greatly restrict a practice that critics say is cruel and inhumane.

More than 100 lawmakers have signed on to legislation known as the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Confinement Act, or HALT. The measure has the support of the state's Roman Catholic bishops as well as several Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations and representatives of mental health groups.

"Going into a box for 23 hours a day is the worst therapeutic environment there is for someone with a mental health issue," said Glenn Liebman, chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of New York State. "Their trauma issues are only going to be exacerbated and their mania issues are only going to be exacerbated."

According to statistics kept by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Special Housing Unit cells — the name used by the state for solitary — held 2,365 inmates as of May 1. That was down from 2,516 inmates in "the box" — the term used by inmates — on Feb. 1.

While state corrections officials have described the practice of directing inmates to be held in solitary following disciplinary proceedings as an important disciplinary device, the critics argue that several states have reduced reliance on such units without compromising prison security.

For instance, they point to Colorado, which has reduced its solitary population from 1,500 inmates to 18 and now has a 15-day limit for the special housing units.

The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association has registered its opposition to the measure. It had also tried to derail earlier restrictions placed by state officials on special housing, saying the attempts to cut back on solitary have put corrections officers and inmates at risk.

Albany's only lawmaker who was once a member of that union, Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, said his experience from 20 years as a corrections officer has convinced him that the system needs to keep solitary confinement as a disciplinary option to maintain order behind prison walls.

"You do need to separate certain inmates from the rest of the population at times," Jones said. "That is for the overall safety of the facility — for the people who work there, including the civilians, and for the rest of the inmates."

Jones noted that inmates, before being directed to spend time in solitary, have hearings at which they have the right of due process.

Over the years, New York's prison agency has been embroiled in litigation with the New York Civil Liberties Union over the reliance on solitary confinement. In recent years, state officials say they have greatly reduced the use of special housing units for misconduct. Since a settlement was reached with the civil rights group in 2016, there has been a 42 percent reduction in the use of such cells, according to the agency.

Asked about the lobbying battle for this year's legislation, a spokesman for the department, Thomas Mailey, responded with a prepared statement: "Earlier this year, Governor (Andrew) Cuomo proposed comprehensive legislation to transform the use of solitary confinement in state facilities and the Legislature failed to act on it. The Department does not comment on proposed legislation."

Backers of the HALT legislation argue that being placed in solitary has led some inmates to kill themselves while others have had lasting psychological trauma.

Under the bill, the state would still be able to separate unruly inmates from the general population but could only do so for no longer than 15 days. The state would also have to create units with rehabilitation services to address the underlying reasons why an inmate needs to be taken out of general population.

The measure would also ban the practice of putting inmates with mental illnesses into solitary confinement.

Bill sponsors are hoping the legislation will hit the floor of the Senate and Assembly in the coming weeks. The legislative session is scheduled to conclude June 19, though an extension is a possibility.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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