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New York: Disciplinary Segregation Settlement Finalized; $1.6 Million in Attorney Fees Awarded

by Matt Clarke

On March 31, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin granted final approval to a historic settlement between the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and New York State that will usher in comprehensive reform of disciplinary solitary confinement in the state’s prison system. The reforms will result in the removal of over 1,100 prisoners from solitary.

LeRoy Peoples, DePayne Richardson and Tonja Fenton filed individual federal civil rights lawsuits that were consolidated into a class-action challenging conditions of confinement in disciplinary segregation in New York state prisons. PLN previously reported the settlement when the district court gave it preliminary approval. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.42]. The court has now signed off on the agreement.

Expressing deep gratitude to the attorneys on both sides for working together to craft a settlement that reduces the prevalence of solitary confinement and improves conditions when it is utilized, the court noted that “such confinement causes the deterioration of the mental and physical condition of the inmates.” It also pointed out that, although the settlement involved only disciplinary solitary confinement, prisoners in administrative segregation would also benefit from improved conditions.

The agreement provides for a reduction in the frequency and severity of solitary confinement for disciplinary offenses; it also improves conditions in solitary and creates an enforcement mechanism for the agreed-upon provisions, lasting five years.

The prison system agreed to change its guidelines for disciplinary sentencing, capping the length of terms in solitary for certain offenses. Under the new guidelines, for example, possession of certain legal documents deemed contraband by prison rules – an offense for which both Peoples and Richardson had received three-year Special Housing Unit (SHU) sentences – would result in no more than 30 days’ cell confinement with no SHU time.

The settlement created SHU Alternative Programs, such as substance abuse treatment and programs for special needs and juvenile prisoners. It also included a presumption against housing pregnant prisoners in solitary and increased opportunities for SHU prisoners to earn a reduction of their SHU terms. The settlement abolished the use of nutraloaf – an unpalatable food loaf – as a form of punishment and created the Progressive Inmate Movement System, which allows increased movement privileges based upon good behavior.

Other SHU reforms include the ability to make phone calls to family and friends on a regular basis; provision of shower curtains; improved library services; modification of the double-occupancy-celling policy; access to correspondence courses and radio programming; installation of headphone jacks in SHU cells; creation of the “Tablet Computer Pilot Program”; and increased access to mental health treatment. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.40].

The settlement included $1.1 million in fees payable to attorneys Taylor S. Pendergrass, Christopher T. Dunn, Aimee K. Stewart and Philip L. Desgranges with the NYCLU; David J. Fioccola, Jennifer K. Brown, Kayvan B. Sadeghi and Adam J. Hunt with Morrison & Foerster, LLP; and Alexander A. Reinert. It also provides for up to $100,000 in attorney fees per year for compliance monitoring, plus incentive awards to the named plaintiffs consisting of $80,000 for Richardson, $40,000 for Fenton and $9,900 for Peoples, to be paid out of the $1.1 million fee award.

The district court retained jurisdiction to enforce the settlement during the five-year monitoring period. See: Peoples v. Annucci, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-02694-SAS. 

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Related legal case

Peoples v. Annucci