New York State to overhaul solitary confinement practices

Prison building with high razor wire fence
Solitary Confinement Practices to Change in New York State

New York State will significantly curtail the use of solitary confinement for people in its state prison system, under a legal settlement [PDF] announced December 16. The practice has been described as “torture” by many human rights activists, and is disproportionately harmful to inmates with disabilities.

“No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union in a news release. “Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State.”

On any given day in New York State, the Department of Corrections locks up more than 4,000 inmates in solitary confinement. The settlement aims to reduce that figure by more than 1,100 during the next three years, according to the an NYCLU fact sheet of the settlement [PDF].

This will be done, in part, by reducing the discretion of DOC officers to isolate inmates. At present, 87 different rule violations can result in making inmates eligible for solitary confinement. Under the agreement, 23 of these violations will no longer be used in making these determinations, and another 42 will only be used in limited circumstances.

Previously, the state’s solitary confinement policies contained no time restrictions. According to the New York Times, more than 50 inmates have been in solitary confinement for more than five years and the average length of stay is 190 days. There will now be a three-month overall maximum length, and a one-month maximum for most first-time, non-violent offenses.

While in isolation, individuals will have increased rights to make telephone calls and recreation where they can interact with other individuals, as well as not be deprived of basic necessities, such as food, as punishment.

Of particular concern to disability rights advocates, individuals must have access to mental health services while held in isolation, as well as be notified of available services. Prison officials will be required to take into account an inmate’s mental heath status when making decisions as to when inmates should be granted early release from solitary confinement.

The agreement stems from a 2012 NYCLU class-action, alleging that the state Department of Corrections systematically violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The parties reached a preliminary proposal in December 2014, leading to the current settlement, which still must be approved by a federal court.

“Today is a watershed moment, as New York moves beyond just shielding the most vulnerable and sympathetic from solitary and starts to address more difficult and fundamental issues that have allowed such a devastating and unsafe practice to become so common for so long,” said Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney, in the news release.

Morrison & Foerster and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law professor Alexander A. Reinert assisted the NYCLU in the lawsuit.

In 2012, the NYCLU published “Boxed In,” [PDF]  a scathing report documenting the state’s abuse of solitary confinment procedures.