New York’s Prison Chief Ordered Guards to Illegally Shackle People to Desks
Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci (center) at the New York State Parole Officer’s Memorial on September 22, 2016. | NYS DOCCS

New York’s Prison Chief Ordered Guards to Illegally Shackle People to Desks

Anthony Annucci’s internal memo tells staff to restrain incarcerated people during any out-of-cell time, affecting at least 5,000.

This article is part of a series of investigations into New York’s implementation of solitary confinement reforms.

ANTHONY ANNUCCI, longtime acting commissioner of the New York state prison agency, quietly ordered the illegal shackling of thousands of incarcerated people to desks for hours a day, even as his department’s public regulations forbade the practice, internal records obtained by New York Focus show.

The order relates to the landmark Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which went into effect across the state on March 31 and placed numerous restrictions on prisons’ and jails’ use of solitary confinement. Among the regulations is a rule against placing restraints on residents of certain units while they’re participating in out-of-cell activities. Staff are allowed to make case-by-case exceptions — but only if they conduct an “individual assessment” that determines that an incarcerated person poses a “significant and unreasonable” safety risk.

But in a memo sent to all prison superintendents three weeks after HALT’s enactment, Annucci flipped that script: Instead of a presumption against shackling the protected residents, he wrote that, with limited exceptions, he had ordered facilities to “utilize restraints any time an incarcerated individual is … participating in out-of-cell programming,” which often lasts for several hours.

According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), the state prison agency, all facilities except the Hudson and Adirondack state prisons continue to implement Annucci’s order, which has likely affected over 5,000 people.

The memo is a glaring illustration of the state prison system’s resistance to implementing HALT. A series of New York Focus investigations has found that prisons have routinely violated numerous aspects of the law. Flouting HALT since its implementation, the prisons have held people in solitary confinement for illegally long periods; sent people with disabilities to solitary, despite HALT’s ban on the practice; handed down long solitary sentences for prohibited reasons; and failed to abide by current standards for alternatives to solitary confinement.

In the April memo, which New York Focus obtained through a public records request, Annucci referred to the portion of HALT that bans most out-of-cell shackling. But in an excerpt from the legislation, he omitted mention of the “individual” safety assessments required under HALT, making it seem as though his blanket override of the no-restraints rule was in line with the law.

“After careful consideration of circumstances surrounding the significant increase in violence, including serious injuries to staff and incarcerated individuals, the Acting Commissioner issued the memo,” DOCCS told New York Focus, responding to questions about Annucci’s omission. The department said the memo “comports with HALT and the Department’s responsibilities.” DOCCS added that violence at Hudson and Adirondack “has not necessitated the use of restraints” under the memo.

According to Julia Salazar, HALT’s prime sponsor in the state Senate and chair of the Senate’s corrections committee, the order is illegal. “This is clearly a violation of the law as written,” she told New York Focus.

“People should be evaluated on an individual basis,” Salazar said. “And only if there is a clear and identifiable threat of physical violence is it at all reasonable to constrain someone like this — especially because ostensibly they’re supposed to be going through therapeutic, rehabilitative programming.”

Chris Gelardi for New York Focus

ONE OF THE MAIN tenets of HALT is a rule against holding incarcerated people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. DOCCS is violating that regulation more often than adhering to it: According to its own data, as of early October, a majority of people held in solitary confinement had been there for longer than 15 days, some for as long as three months.

HALT also created a new category of prison and jail housing, known as residential rehabilitation units (RRUs), where facilities can keep incarcerated people separated from the general population for longer periods if they offer them more out-of-cell time, including for “therapeutic” classroom-style programming. Among the many regulations the law set for RRUs — which also apply to other alternate isolation units run by state prisons, including certain mental health units — is the rule against shackling residents during their out-of-cell time. Annucci’s order overrode that rule, including for the alternate units.

More than two months after Annucci handed down the internal order, the department released a public directive on RRU procedures that partly echoed his memo, asserting that residents should be placed in restraints “when escorted off the unit” and outlining the memo’s exceptions to the shackling rule. But the directive’s next two points contradicted Annucci’s memo. One point excerpts HALT’s no-restraints rule — including the “individual assessment” requirement for exceptions — and another links to a seemingly HALT-compliant individual assessment form.

DOCCS did not answer questions from New York Focus about those contradictions. Incarcerated people and advocates report that prisons are following Annucci’s internal order, rather than the public directive.

READ MORE: Solitary by Another Name: How State Prisons Are Using ‘Therapeutic’ Units to Evade Reforms

The shackling order has likely affected thousands of people: Between April 19 — when Annucci handed down the order, per his memo — and September 30, prisons sentenced 5,321 incarcerated people to more than 15 days of isolation, according to data published by DOCCS as a requirement of HALT. Since July, the facilities have held roughly 1,400 people in RRUs at any given time, the numbers show. Likely hundreds more have been held in the other isolation units.

In the memo, Annucci cited “an escalation of violence” in isolation units to justify his order. Asked for data about such violence, DOCCS sent numbers for the whole prison system, asserting that there was a 31 percent increase in reported assaults on staff and 35 percent increase in reported assaults on incarcerated people between January and October. The agency included no data specific to isolation units. DOCCS data from the past two years show that reported assaults are at a high point, but they still fit within a pattern of fluctuations in reported violence.

In the memo, Annucci outlined limited exceptions to the blanket policy, including for medical treatment, visitation, and when an RRU resident is “secured” in a shower room or exercise area. He also specified that staff should lock incarcerated people in “RESTART chairs” — special desks “designed to secure potentially disruptive inmates.” The desks have slots to lock in ankle restraints, as well as optional protective screens to separate occupants from those around them.

The RESTART desks are made by Corcraft, the brand name for a state-owned company operated by DOCCS that pays incarcerated people between 16 and 65 cents an hour to make its products. The desks cost between $1,420 and $2,100, according to a Corcraft brochure.

Incarcerated people have complained to New York Focus that the restraints make living in RRUs unbearable.

“When they have program, you’re shackled to the table for three hours,” Ahmed Greene, who spent five months in an RRU at Five Points Correctional Facility, told New York Focus in September. “And when you come out for their so-called indoor recreation, you’re shackled to the table for three hours.”

Most people opt out of indoor recreation, he said, “because you’re shackled to the table.”

Desk photo: New York Division of Correctional Industries

Update: November 8, 2022, 9:48 a.m.: This story has been updated to include additional comments from DOCCS sent after publication.