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Landmark Settlement in New York State Juvenile Solitary Confinement Suit

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) reached a landmark settlement in a case involving excessive solitary confinement of 16- and 17-year-old (juvenile) prisoners. The settlement, filed on October 17, 2014, ushers in wide ranging reforms, limiting how solitary confinement can be used in disciplinary cases involving juvenile prisoners.

Paul Cookhorne was a 17-year-old New York state prisoner when he was sentenced to four years in solitary confinement following a disciplinary conviction for assaulting a guard. This had the effect of also depriving him of good time credits, commissary purchases, packages and phone calls for four years and meant that he would be confined in a small cell for 23 hours a day.

Aided by attorney Maria Pagano of Prisoners' Legal Services of New York (PLS), Cookhorne filed a civil rights suit in state court alleging the punishment was so excessive it shocked the consciousness and allowing such punishment was deliberately indifferent to the medical and mental health needs of juvenile prisoners who are entering the final stages of childhood development. The suit alleged this constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the state and federal constitutions. It also alleged that failing to require a person's age to be taken into consideration as a mitigating factor during disciplinary sentencing was unconstitutional.

After Cookhorne enjoyed success at the trial and initial appellate levels, the DOCCS decided to settle the case. In doing so, it agreed to limit solitary confinement of juveniles to 18 hours per day on weekdays and 22 hours per day on weekends. The four of the six hours of out-of-cell activity on the weekdays will be programming while two hours each day will be for recreation. The DOCCS will hire three social workers with youth specialties masters degrees to assist the juveniles in solitary confinement. It will conduct a one-time review of all persons in solitary confinement under 21 years of age who were juveniles when their solitary confinement began. It will establish a Juvenile Separation Unit with age-appropriate programming, including an incentive-based plan to promote positive behavioral changes and a plan to transition juveniles back to general population.

The DOCCS agreed to change its policies to mandate that age be taken into account as a mitigating factor during disciplinary hearings involving juveniles and to train hearing officers on this changed policy. It also agreed to provide specialized training for all DOCCS staff who work with juveniles. Finally, it agreed to mandate automatic Superintendent-level review of disciplinary actions that result in juvenile solitary confinement.

This settlement applies to all DOCCS juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement, including Special Housing Units. It requires the DOCCS to send reports to the PLS attorneys and allow them to inspect the juvenile solitary confinement areas once a year during the two-year duration of the agreement.

"16- and 17-year olds are in the adolescent stage of human development," said Pagano. "The science is dispositive that frontal lobe development is lacking in adolescent brain structure and, as a result, children this age and up to 25 years of age, react to stressful situations quite differently than adults. With the settlement of this case, the state of New York recognized that to protect the rights of adolescents in its custody, their unique characteristics and needs must be identified and that, when punished, their young age must be taken into account." See: Cookhorne v. Fischer, NY Supreme Ct., Erie County, Index No. 2012-1791.

Additional sources: PLS Press Release dated 10-22-14; DOCCS Press Release dated 10-21-14

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Related legal case

Cookhorne v. Fischer