NEWS: How the Landmark Settlement Will—and Will Not—Change Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons

By Jean Casella. Excerpted from Solitary Watch.

The settlement announced Wednesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union in the Peoples v Fischer case brings broad, deep, and meaningful change to the way New York utilizes solitary confinement in its state prisons. It is a significant and hard-won victory for the plaintiffs, their attorneys, and the hundreds of advocates who have long been battling the widespread use of solitary in the state.

Media hailed the changes as an “overhaul” of solitary confinement in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel, Alphonso David, called the agreement “radical and groundbreaking,” and told the New York Times that the governor “saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to make New York prisons a model for the country.”

Everything in the settlement of the four-year lawsuit indeed represents major progress, and the limits and alternatives it prescribes will bring relief to perhaps thousands of individuals suffering in solitary in New York. If there is a downside, it is that the largely celebratory tone of the announcements and press coverage may lead all of the people in long-term solitary to mistakenly expect that their ordeals will soon be over, and the public to believe that the struggle to end prolonged prison isolation in New York has now been won.

In fact, even amidst the hard-won celebrations, there is acknowledgement that the changes the settlement brings are incremental changes. While the agreement begins to address the underlying paradigm of punishment and control through isolation that has been liberally practiced in New York for decades, it does not destroy or replace it. And even when all its provisions are implemented, thousands of people are likely to remain in solitary, some for years or decades.

Read the full article here.

NEWS: New York State Agrees to Overhaul Solitary Confinement in Prisons

By Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip. Excerpted from the New York Times.

New York has agreed to a major overhaul in the way solitary confinement is administered in the state’s prisons, with the goal of significantly reducing the number of inmates held in isolation, cutting the maximum length of stay and improving their living conditions.

The five-year, $62 million agreement, announced on Wednesday, is the result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union over the treatment of inmates in solitary confinement in the prisons. For 23 hours a day, 4,000 inmates are locked in concrete 6-by-10-foot cells, sometimes for years, with little if any human contact, no access to rehabilitative programs and a diet that can be restricted to a foul-tasting brick of bread and potatoes known at the prisons as “the loaf.”

“This is the end hopefully of an era where people are just thrown into the box for an unlimited amount of time on the whim of a corrections officer,” said Taylor Pendergrass, the civil liberties union’s lead counsel on the case. “This will not be the end of the road for solitary confinement reform, but we really think it’s a watershed moment.”

NEWS: Lawsuit Secures New Limits on Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons

A cell in a New York State "Special Housing Unit."

A cell in a New York State “Special Housing Unit.”

By Jean Casella. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

Under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three people held in long-term solitary confinement, New York has agreed to a set of changes to its use of solitary and other forms of extreme isolation in state prisons. The agreement, announced on Wednesday, would bar certain vulnerable populations from isolated confinement, while for the first time setting firm guidelines and maximum durations for isolating others.

New York currently holds some 3,800 men, women, and children in 23-hour-a-day isolation in small, sometime windowless cells, either alone or with one other person. “The conditions inside New York’s isolation cells are deplorable and result in severe physical and psychological harm,” stated the original complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan in December 2012. The complaint, which charges the state with violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights under the 8th and 14th Amendments, continues:

Individuals are confined idle and isolated for months and years on end in tiny cells. They are allowed only one hour of exercise a day in barren cages smaller than their cell. As additional punishment, prison staff may issue orders depriving individuals of what little remains—access to nourishing and edible food, exercise, bedding, and showers may all be denied. At some prisons, two men are forced to share a single isolation cell for weeks and months on end, often leading to violence. Requests for mental health care must be discussed through the food slot in the cell door.

People are placed in isolation on the word of corrections staff, who issue tens of thousands of disciplinary “tickets” each year that result in time in the state’s numerous Special Housing Units (SHUs) or its two supermax prisons. Five out of six tickets are for nonviolent misbehavior, according to a 2012 report by the NYCLU, and disciplinary hearings are at best pro forma. The average SHU sentence is five months, but many extend for years and a few have stretched to decades. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez has stated that solitary confinement beyond two weeks is cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and often qualifies as torture.

The most dramatic reform brought about by the agreement between the state and the NYCLU is a ban on using solitary to discipline youth under the age of 18, which makes New York the largest state in the nation to prohibit the practice for juveniles in state prisons. In New York, 16 and 17 year olds accused of a felony are automatically tried and incarcerated as adults, and large numbers have ended up in the SHUs, sometimes for “their own protection.” Under the new deal, juveniles with serious disciplinary violations would be would be placed in special units with more out-of-cell time and special programming.

The agreement also bans placing pregnant women in solitary, and sets a 30-day limit on isolating people with developmental disabilities. A 2007 court settlement and a law enacted in 2011 already prohibit the use of isolated confinement for people with serious mental illness. Since the passage of the SHU Exclusion Act, several hundred people have been moved from solitary into special Residential Mental Health Units (though evidence suggests that hundreds of others remain isolated in spite of mental illness, largely due to issues around diagnosis).

“It made sense to immediately remove these vulnerable populations from extreme isolation,” Taylor Pendergrass, the NYCLU’s lead attorney in the suit, told Solitary Watch. “But in the longer term, we believe this process will bring about more comprehensive reforms that will affect many more people.” Those reforms will come, in large part, in the form of “sentencing guidelines” that designate punishments for different disciplinary infractions, and for the first time set maximum sentences in the SHU. The negotiated guidelines are covered by a confidentiality agreement until staff can be trained and the new rules put in place–a process that should take no more than nine months, Pendergrass said.

The deal also calls for New York State and the NYCLU to each choose an expert who will assess the use of isolated confinement throughout the prison system over the next two years and make further recommendations for change. The state has selected James Austin, a widely known expert on “prisoner classification” whose report to the Colorado Department of Corrections led to a reduction in the numbers of individuals held in long-term solitary in that state.

The NYCLU has chosen as its expert Eldon Vail, former head of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Vail has said publicly that solitary confinement produces “disastrous results.” He is known for conducting studies and programs in Washington’s state prisons aimed at not only reducing the use of solitary, but also tempering its effects by providing programming, therapy, and group activities for those separated from the general prison population. “He knows that treatment works better than torture,” Pendergrass said of Vail. “He is a pioneer in evidence-based approaches to prison safety and security, which do not include extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.”

The choices suggest that while the state is on board for some modest reductions in the numbers of people it holds in solitary and the length of time they spend there, the NYCLU envisions more sweeping change, which would eliminate the total isolation of solitary confinement in favor of a more rehabilitative model. In this, it is aligned with other reform efforts in the New York, including a bill introduced last month in the state legislature that aims to “fundamental transform” how prisons respond to people’s “needs and behaviors” by replacing SHUs with “Residential Rehabilitation Units.”

These more comprehensive reforms could help one group that is not affected by the current rounds of changes–those held in “administrative segregation” rather than “disciplinary segregation.” These include individuals who are classified as safety risks and sometimes spend decades in solitary confinement. Among these is William Blake, who has spent more than 26 years in isolation and whose essay on life in the SHU, “A Sentence Worse Than Death,” was published by Solitary Watch last year.

In the meantime, Pendergrass expects there will be some who feel the current deal goes too far, just as others believe it does not go far enough. He did not specify where the “pushback” is likely to come from. But in the past, correctional officers unions have generally been strong opponent of any restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.

In a statement to the New York Times, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said of the new agreement: “Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis. Any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or lives in these institutions.”

The NYCLU’s lawsuit is on hold while Austin and Vail complete their work. If the group–and its incarcerated clients–are not satisfied with the results, the litigation may resume. Meanwhile, the three named plaintiffs in the suit–Leroy Peoples, Dwayne Richardson, and Tonja Fenton–have all been released to the general population from the SHUs. “Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog,” Peoples said in 2012. The lawsuit that bears his name promises to spare many others the same suffering.

NEWS: NYCLU Seeks Class-Action Status in Challenge to Use of Solitary Confinement in NY Prisons

Press release. Reprinted from the New York Civil Liberties Union site.

Tonja Fenton and family

Tonja Fenton and family

March 6, 2013 — In a court filing today, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster took steps to obtain class-action status in a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison officials’ policies and practices that result in the arbitrary, inhumane and unconstitutional use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The filing is an amended class-action complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, a lawsuit the NYCLU filed on behalf of Leroy Peoples, who spent 780 days confined in extreme isolation as punishment for non-violent misbehavior that involved no threat to the safety or security of others. Today’s filing seeks to extend the scope of the lawsuit to include all individuals incarcerated in state prisons similarly affected by Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policies and practices permitting the arbitrary and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement and extreme isolation are uniquely cruel and debilitating punishments that are being routinely imposed on people for a range of non-violent disciplinary infractions,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Prison officials’ arbitrary and inhumane use of extreme isolation for such extraordinarily long amounts of time inflicts excruciating suffering on thousands of individuals each year and makes our prisons and communities less safe. If they refuse to end this practice, we are confident that the courts will require them to do so.”

[Read more…]

NEWS: NYCLU Lawsuit Challenges New York State’s Use of Solitary Confinement

Press release. Reprinted from the New York Civil Liberties Union site.

barsDecember 6, 2012 — The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison official’s system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement that are responsible for the arbitrary and unjustified use of extreme isolation on thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York’s prisons every year.

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff, Leroy Peoples, spent 780 days locked in tiny, barren cell the size of an elevator with another prisoner for 24 hours a day as punishment for misbehavior that involved no violence and no threat to the safety or security of others.

“New York’s prison authorities permit the use extreme isolation – one of the harshest punishments one human can impose on another – as a disciplinary tool of first resort for violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This cruel and arbitrary punishment endangers prisoners and corrections officials alike, and it decreases safety in our prisons and communities.”

[Read more…]


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