Constitutional Law

New York promises sweeping reform of solitary confinement rules to settle prison suit

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In a Wednesday court filing approved the same day by a Manhattan federal district court judge, the state of New York has agreed to sweeping reform of its solitary confinement rules concerning prison infractions to settle a class action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Under the agreement, New York’s prison system becomes the largest in the country to ban solitary confinement as a means of disciplining inmates under age 18, the New York Times (reg. req.) reports. Solitary is also banned for pregnant women and restricted to a maximum of 30 days for the developmentally disabled.

Prisoners who are 16 and 17 must be given a minimum of five hours per day of exercise and other programs outside their cells even if they are held in individual cells for the other 19 hours, according to the article. Gannett has a story as well.

So-called sentencing guidelines provide a framework for imposing solitary confinement, and the agreement also designates maximum terms that should be used.

Under the pact, a state official will be charged with overseeing the imposition of solitary confinement, and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision and the New York Civil Liberties Union will each designate an expert to monitor compliance with the settlement terms. If all goes well, the federal civil rights case that prompted the pact will be dismissed in two years. For now, it has been paused while the reforms are underway.

“New York State has done the right thing by committing to comprehensive reform of the way it uses extreme isolation, a harmful and inhumane practice that has for years been used as a punishment of first resort” in the state’s prisons, said executive director Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU in a press release about the settlement.

Lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who was held in isolation for 780 straight days after prison officials determined he had filed false legal documents, also said he is pleased. “This agreement is an important step toward dignity and decency,” he said in the release. “I thank the governor for taking this seriously and hearing us out.”

Another plaintiff, Dewayne Richardson, was sentenced to 1,095 days in solitary for the same reason. “Hopefully, this agreement can stop the prison system from failing our communities,” he told the ACLU. “This agreement has the potential to change [the state’s] focus to treatment, not just punishment, so some good will come of our time in prison.”

Morrison & Foerster and professor Alexander Reinert of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law assisted staff attorneys of the NYCLU by serving as pro bono counsel for the plaintiffs.

Some 3,800 prisoners have been kept locked up for at least 22 hours and as much as 24 hours daily, either by themselves or with another prisoner in a cell the size of a parking space.

The news articles don’t include any comment from the state.

See also: “Some Prisons Rely Less on Solitary Confinement; the Benefits Aren’t Just Economic” “Inmate held 41 years in solitary dies just days after court orders his release from prison”

Updated at 2:50 p.m. to clarify the role played by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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