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Settlement Comprehensively Overhauls Solitary Confinement in New York Prisons

On December 16, 2015, the State of New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) announced a final settlement agreement that will change many aspects of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s use of solitary confinement, commonly known as “the box.” Important changes include abolishing the use of food loaf as punishment, capping most terms in solitary confinement and eliminating solitary as punishment for minor disciplinary offenses. An initial settlement in the case had been announced in February 2014. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.42].

“New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons,” said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. “No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time. Today marks the end of an 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.”

The agreement resulted from a class-action federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2011. The prisoner class members are represented by attorneys Taylor Pendergrass of the NYCLU, Professor Alexander A. Reinert with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and Jennifer Brown and David Fioccola of Morrison & Foerster. They were awarded $1.1 million in attorney fees plus additional fees each year until the lawsuit is dismissed by joint motion.

The settlement includes several important provisions. It removed about 1,100 prisoners from solitary confinement, placing them into newly-created rehabilitative units or less-isolating disciplinary units. It prohibits the use of solitary confinement as a sanction for 42 of the 87 rule violations currently punishable with solitary confinement. It caps solitary confinement sentences at 90 days for most first-time serious disciplinary violations and 30 days for most first-time non-violent violations. It also grants an automatic reduction in solitary confinement sentences for good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programs.

Further, the settlement agreement requires training for more than 20,000 prison employees in de-escalating situations involving prisoners held in solitary confinement. It increases access to telephones and reading material, provides shower curtains, and abolishes the use of food loaf (also known as nutraloaf) as a form of punishment. It commits the state to spend about $62 million on these reforms and establishes a robust monitoring program.

The settlement also provides for the creation of a 252-bed step-down program at the Southport Correctional Facility and a similar 75-bed program at the Mid-State Correctional Facility to help long-term segregation prisoners transition into general population. Substance abuse programs, a program for Special Housing Unit (SHU) prisoners with special needs and a program for segregation prisoners about to be released were also created. A small pilot program allowing SHU prisoners the use of tablet computers without Internet access was established and will be expanded should it prove successful.

“To their credit, New York officials recognized the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system and came to the table with an appetite for reform,” said senior pro bono counsel Jennifer Brown. “We commend New York corrections leaders for tackling this issue head-on and committing to the hard and complicated work necessary to reduce solitary – work that will improve everyone’s safety, in and outside prison, in the long run.”

Final approval of the settlement was granted by the district court on March 31, 2016, which issued an amended memorandum and order of approval on April 14. “This Settlement Agreement represents a significant step toward improving the conditions of solitary confinement throughout New York State,” the court wrote. “Nonetheless, it could not and did not address every problem experienced by prisoners in general or in solitary confinement in particular. Further reforms are likely to follow, especially when the Attorney General, representing the people of New York, has demonstrated his strong commitment to improving the conditions of confinement for prisoners within the State’s custody.”

The first annual status report regarding implementation of the settlement agreement is due by May 4, 2017. See: Peoples v. Fischer, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-02694-SAS.

Additional source: NYCLU

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Related legal case

Peoples v. Fischer