New York Prisons Will Overhaul Solitary Confinement to Settle Federal Lawsuit

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A guard stands in a tower at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, on June 8. Reuters/Chris Wattie

New York prisons will overhaul their use of solitary confinement in a landmark court settlement that will cut the number of inmates held in isolation by 25 percent and improve conditions for all prisoners placed in solitary, new court papers state.

The new policies will also end the use of solitary as punishment for all minor violations, will set a maximum of one month in solitary for almost all first-time nonviolent offenders and will improve conditions ranging from the food to how often prisoners can get new books and magazine, according to papers filed in Federal court in Manhattan.

The reforms follow a pattern of increased attention on jails and prisons both nationwide and in New York, with President Obama visiting a federal prison in Oklahoma in July and New York City launching massive reforms of its Rikers Island jail complex in June to settle a federal lawsuit.  

The settlement was reached Wednesday between New York state and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed a class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections in 2012 over its use of solitary confinement. “Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” Leroy Peoples, the lead plaintiff in the civil liberty union’s lawsuit, said in a statement.

Peoples was confined in isolation in two different New York state prisons for 780 days  for filing false legal documents.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed the settlement in a statement Wednesday, saying, “This groundbreaking agreement with the NYCLU should serve as a model for other states across the nation to follow in reforming the use of solitary confinement.”

The settlement will transform solitary confinement in New York in ways both sweeping and specific.

First-time violations of most offenses—except for assault and escape—will be capped with a maximum of 90 days in solitary confinement and all prisoners in solitary will automatically earn early release for good behavior and for participating in rehabilitative programs, according to the civil liberties union.

Prisoners in solitary will no longer be served “the loaf”—which the civil liberties union calls “inedible”—and will instead receive “a sack lunch consisting of fruit, cheese, cold cuts, sandwich bread and coleslaw,” the settlement says.

All solitary cells will also be outfitted with wall jacks for headphones and prisoners who finish their weekly ration of two books and a magazine can make an exchange for new reading material, the settlement reads.

“No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “We hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York state.”

The union representing New York state corrections officers said that solitary confinement is an effective measure for discipline violent inmates and that limiting its use will increase the number of inmate assaults on prison staff.

“It is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” the union said in a statement.

Approximately 4,000 of the state's 60,000 prisoners are doing time in 23-hour confinement for breaking prison rules, the Associated Press reported.

The settlement must still be approved by federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who also oversaw class-action lawsuits over the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.

The reforms are expected to cost $62 million, according to the civil liberties union.