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Another Voice: 'Special housing units' protect safety of inmates

By Michael Powers

Prison violence in New York is already at an all-time high, leaving both incarcerated individuals and correction officers in extreme danger. So, why would we pursue legislation that will revoke what few tools correction officers currently have at their disposal to maintain safety?

Hollywood has contaminated the minds of the general public, leading many to believe that the solitary confinement seen on our televisions and in movie theaters is synonymous with the special housing units that are currently utilized in New York State prisons. That is simply false. Solitary confinement in New York State does not exist.

In reality, SHUs were designed with safety in mind and are purposefully employed to separate dangerous individuals from the general population, and only when they commit serious infractions. SHUs also provide safety to incarcerated individuals who would be subject to dangerous situations among the general population.

Additionally, it is argued that those placed in SHUs experience a lower quality of life. This also untrue. Those in special housing units are afforded much of the same comforts as those in the general population, including outdoor time, access to authorized electronics, unlimited legal counsel, personal visits, access to libraries and health care, personalized educational programs, Office of Mental Health counseling, and the same meals as all others.

The proposed “Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” Act, or HALT, directly threatens the future of special housing units in state correctional facilities, and consequently, the safety of both incarcerated individuals and officers that SHUs were designed to protect.

Restricting correction officers’ abilities to control dangerous situations within prison walls will not resolve the quality of life issue, it will only lead to increased violence.

Furthermore, supporters of HALT legislation argue that minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ population, are subjected to placement in SHUs more frequently than others. However, certain individuals are placed in special housing units in an effort to protect them from violence they may experience in the general population.

The HALT Act would require the removal of incarcerated individuals from their special housing unit after 15 consecutive days, completely disregarding those that are placed in SHUs for their own safety. In addition, under the HALT proposal, most offenses would warrant only three days in SHUs, barely a deterrent for dangerous behavior.

Ensuring that special housing units remain intact is imperative to the safety of everyone inside prisons.

Michael Powers is president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association.

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