Agreement to Limit Solitary Confinement in New York State Prisons Applauded
Civil rights groups and New York State officials are hailing as “historic” an agreement to enact sweeping reforms in the way the state’s prison system uses solitary confinement as a means of punishing prisoners.
Under the unprecedented February 2014 agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), the state agreed to immediately begin to remove pregnant and mentally disabled prisoners from segregation.
The agreement, which suspends a class-action lawsuit, also makes New York’s prison system the largest in the nation to ban the use of solitary confinement to punish offenders under the age of 18.
“These changes, while just a first step, are significant,” noted NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. “They’re historic. We’re the largest system in the country to preclude solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners. That’s huge.”
Echoing Lieberman’s remarks, DOCCS Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci said the changes would “make the disciplinary practices in New York’s prisons more humane.”
“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 New York’s prisons,” Lieberman observed. “By entering into this agreement, [Governor Andrew Cuomo’s] administration has shown that it has the vision to transform New York into a national leader in the movement toward alternatives to solitary confinement, and has prioritized the safety of prisoners, prison staff and New York’s communities.”
Under the agreement the state will adopt disciplinary sentencing guidelines, and will set first-ever maximum limits on the length of time served in solitary confinement. In return, the NYCLU agreed to suspend its class-action suit against the state for two years. If reforms do not move forward by then, the suit will resume.
“We agreed to suspend our lawsuit because the State demonstrated in the course of these negotiations a real commitment to reform,” said NYCLU senior staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel in the case. “This will not only be a tremendous accomplishment for the State of New York and DOCCS, but will also signal a critical reorientation of the system toward practices that emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over punishment and isolation.”
As part of the agreement, DOCCS will also increase the number of hours of recreation and expand access to radios and educational materials for prisoners in segregation. Previously, prisoners held in solitary confinement were allowed only one hour of recreation per day and denied access to educational materials.
“This agreement is an important step toward dignity and decency,” said lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who served 780 consecutive days in solitary for nonviolent behavior. “I thank the governor for taking this seriously and hearing us out.”
“Hopefully, this agreement can stop the prison system from failing our communities,” added plaintiff Dewayne Richardson, who was sentenced to 1,095 days in segregation, also for nonviolent behavior. “This agreement has the potential to change DOCCS’s focus to treatment, not just punishment, so some good will come of our time in prison.”
The agreement resulted from the NYCLU’s class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer, U.S.D.C. (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-02694-SAS, which challenged New York’s use of solitary confinement. An October 2012 NYCLU report, “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” revealed that DOCCS routinely sentenced prisoners to weeks and even years of solitary for the most minor of infractions.
“New York is taking a substantial step in the right direction, and we hope that it will ultimately join the many other states who have recognized that lengthy isolation sentences cause serious harm while accomplishing little if any of the goals of a rational corrections system,” said Professor Alexander Reinert, with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
“With so little to do, your mind rots with thoughts that are uncommon or unnatural,” wrote Daniel, a 52-year-old DOCCS prisoner at the Upstate Correctional Facility, in a letter to the NYCLU about his experiences in SHUs (“Special Housing Units,” the term DOCCS uses for solitary confinement).
Daniel, who has a history of self-mutilation, wrote that his time in “the Box,” as prisoners refer to the SHU, made him “become numb” and “lose the sense of reality to the degree that any commotion at all is better than vegetating by letting hours pass [with] nothing on your mind or [the] will to do anything.”
Letters like Daniel’s were the centerpiece of the NYCLU report, which was the culmination of a year-long investigation that included interviews with prison guards, mental health professionals, and SHU prisoners and their families and attorneys. The NYCLU also reviewed thousands of pages of DOCCS regulations and disciplinary records, statistical information regarding the prison system’s use of isolation, and prisoners’ disciplinary and mental health histories, as well as more than 100 letters from SHU prisoners.
The investigation found almost 4,500 prisoners were held in “the Box” throughout the prison system every day, including nearly 2,000 at two facilities where the NYCLU concentrated its investigation: Upstate, near the Canadian border, and the Southport Correctional Facility in Pine City, New York.
Prisoners in segregation are kept inside a cell about the size of a bathroom for 23 hours each day, with the remaining hour for outside exercise in a segregated cage known as a “kennel.” Meals are delivered through a slot in the door. And every year, according to the NYCLU, about 2,000 prisoners “are released directly from the SHU back to the community.”
What the NYCLU found especially egregious about “the Box” was how so many DOCCS prisoners were placed there for such long periods of time. According to the report, between 2007 and 2011, prisoners were put in solitary confinement more than 75,000 times for an average of 150 days – what experts said was five to 10 times longer than the maximum tolerable length – with some prisoners serving SHU terms of years or even decades.
The report found that roughly 90% of those placements served as punishment for alleged disciplinary violations of more than 100 institutional rules – everything from personal grooming and personal property to fighting.
According to DOCCS regulations, guards are discouraged from submitting misbehavior reports for “minor infractions” or other violations that “do not involve danger to life, health, security or property.” But once a guard submits a disciplinary charge, prison officials have far too much discretion, the NYCLU argued, in determining whether the violation merits solitary.
In addition, once a misbehavior report reaches a disciplinary hearing, hearing officers – who are DOCCS employees – usually favor a guard’s testimony over a prisoner’s.
“My story was credible. I appealed [to DOCCS headquarters in] Albany,” wrote Donell, an Upstate prisoner who, like Daniel and others, was given a pseudonym by the NYCLU to avoid retaliation by prison officials. “You can never beat a ticket. The disciplinary hearings are unfair... [T]he hearing officers are friends with the [guards].”
The NYCLU’s research corroborated Donell’s claim. From 2007 to 2011, approximately 95% of the more than 105,000 disciplinary hearings held by DOCCS for Tier III violations – those reserved “for the most serious offenses, such as assaults on staff or other inmates” – resulted in a conviction and time in “the Box.” Moreover, the NYCLU learned, prisoners were often found guilty “based solely on the misbehavior report and the [guard’s] testimony while dismissing conflicting prisoner testimony.”
“We are incarcerated for a crime. We are in here repaying that [debt],” wrote Adrian, a Southport SHU prisoner. “We shouldn’t be punished in here with unfairness.”
Donn Rowe, who until recently headed the union representing New York’s state prison guards, would not comment on the agreement between NYCLU and DOCCS, but when the civil rights suit was filed in 2012, Rowe submitted an editorial to the New York Post in which he described solitary confinement as being critical for ensuring “stability and safety” in state prisons.
The former commissioner of New York City’s corrections system, Martin Horn, agreed that reforms are needed to curtail the use of solitary, but said he worried the agreement will strip guards of an important tool used to maintain order.
“Some segregation will always be necessary in a prison system like New York’s, for safety reasons,” stated Horn, currently a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “As programs and activities have been stripped as a result of budget cuts, all that is left is idle inmates,” he added. “And idle inmates make problems.”
Horn said he hoped that New York State will continue to develop and fund reform programs such as those championed by Governor Cuomo, including new education and training programs that can provide incentives in lieu of punishments like solitary confinement.
Sources: “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” New York Civil Liberties Union (October 2012); www.nyclu.org; The New York Times; http://prisondivestment.wordpress.com; www.huffingtonpost.com; Associated Press; Wall Street Journal
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Related legal case
Peoples v. Fischer
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 1:11-cv-02694-SAS|