Zeldin decries law that limits solitary confinement use as he gets city corrections officers’ union’s backing

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin announcing endorsement from Correction Officers Benevelent Association outside Rikers Island jail complex. Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.
Photo by Ethan Stark-Miller

Amid a tightening governor’s race, GOP gubernatorial nominee, Rep. Lee Zeldin, again said he would suspend a state law that restricts the use of solitary confinement in New York’s jails, while getting the backing of the city corrections officers’ union.

Zeldin – who represents the eastern end of Long Island – derided the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, a law passed in 2021 that puts a 15-day limit on an inmates’ stay in solitary confinement, during a news conference outside the Rikers Island jail complex in Queens Tuesday morning. The law is intended to limit the use of solitary confinement, which criminal justice advocates argue is an inhumane practice that often leads to long-term mental health issues for those subjected to it.

During his remarks, Zeldin repeated that if elected he would immediately declare a “crime emergency” in the state to suspend the HALT Act, as well as other criminal justice reforms passed by the state legislature in recent years to eliminate cash bail for most crimes, make evidence automatically available to defendants before trial and limit incarceration for technical parole violations.

The congress member alleged the HALT Act is leading to a sharp increase in attacks on corrections officers across the state. He also blasted the state’s Democratic Governor, Kathy Hochul, and legislature for not immediately reversing the law once the alleged rise in assaults on jail guards became known soon after its April 1 implementation.

“The people who are in these facilities are well aware of what the HALT Act did,” Zeldin said. “And it is no coincidence that starting on April 1, assaults on correctional officers, on other prison staff and even inmates instantly started to skyrocket. Where’s Kathy Hochul? I mean it should be intolerable. The first reports came back within days. The legislature was in session until the beginning of June. It was never too late for them to take action but instead they were just hoping that you all were going to ignore it.”

Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr. announcing the union’s backing of Rep. Lee Zeldin outside Rikers Island. Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.Photo by Ethan Stark-Miller

That’s why, Zeldin said “We are going to suspend the HALT Act Jan. 1 here in the state of New York.”

Zeldin made the comments flanked by both leaders and members of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), which represents the city’s roughly 6,200 jail guards. COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. said the union is backing Zeldin’s bid for the Governor’s Mansion because its membership feels laws like the HALT Act show Hochul doesn’t have its members’ backs when they go to work In the city’s jails each day.

“Our elected leaders in Albany have enacted legislation and policies that endanger our families, our communities, and our essential first responders that are comprised of my members,” Boscio Jr. said. “Our members are faced to go to work every day not knowing if they will return home the same way they left. Our female officers go to work not knowing if they will be sexually assaulted by inmates held on charges of rape.”

The union’s backing of Zeldin comes as yet another person died in city Department of Corrections (DOC) custody over the weekend, the 17th to die in DOC custody or soon after being released so far this year, and the beleaguered Rikers Island jail faces the threat of possible federal receivership.

However criminal justice advocates argue there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in assaults on city corrections officers since the HALT Act went into effect earlier this year and that both city and state corrections officers’ unions have opposed any kind of reform for decades.

In an emailed statement to PoliticsNY, Jerome Wright – co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign that originally pushed for the law’s passage, said the HALT Act is necessary to curb the long term inmates experience as a result of extended stays in solitary confinement. Plus, it’s the “law of the land” after being passed by Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature and signed by the governor last year.

“Evidence shows that solitary confinement both causes devastating harm and increases the risk of violence as people deteriorate, whereas alternative interventions with meaningful out-of-cell programming aimed at addressing underlying needs dramatically improves safety for everyone. A two-thirds supermajority of both houses of the legislature passed HALT and the Governor signed it into law. It is the law of the land in New York, and it must be implemented to stop torture, save lives, and improve safety for everyone.”

The latest endorsement for Zeldin’s campaign follows a week where several public polls showed a tightening race between himself and Hochul, including a survey from the right-leaning polling outfit co/efficient that gave Zeldin a very slight – less than a percentage point – lead over his Democratic rival.

Governor Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James make a gun safety announcement at the State Capitol.(Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)

Meanwhile, Hochul made her own crime related announcement with state Attorney General Letitia James from Albany Monday, in which she said she’d pour $6.4 million into the AG’s office to help boost enforcement of the state’s red flag laws – aimed at preventing those who pose a danger to themselves or others from possessing a firearm. Just two days earlier, the governor also announced a new subway safety plan with Mayor Eric Adams, that involves a new surge of law enforcement to curb crime on the subterranean transit system.

Hochul looks to be ramping up her focus on combating crime after the issue appeared to be fueling Zeldin’s recent rise in the polls. But when asked about it by a reporter Monday, the governor said she’s been focussed on crime long before last week’s surveys.

“I don’t think it’s an accurate characterization to say we just started talking about crime when you have to look at the facts of just the work that we’ve done over the last year and the times we’ve talked to the press about this,” she said. “I’m not letting the political theater out there affect what we’ve done. This is not a new issue for me. And I think that’s well established.”