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New York Prisoner Prevails in Lawsuit, Freed from 23 Years in Solitary Confinement

The announcement followed a March 12, 2020, ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York which denied, in part, a motion for summary judgment by the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DCCS) in a 2017 suit brought by H’Shaka related to his combined 23 years of solitary confinement – 13 years in a DCCS Special Housing Unit (SHU) and a decade in Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg).

After several arrests as a minor, H’Shaka was committed to DCCS at age 18 in 1991 upon conviction of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. In 1996, he used a razor to slash the faces of two guards. He was tried in Greene County Court and received an additional 15-year term for the assaults. He also received a sentence of 15 years of disciplinary confinement in SHU from a DCCS internal tier hearing. That sentence was later reduced to 10 years.

In 2010, H’Shaka was released from SHU, but he remained in solitary confinement under Ad Seg due to prison officials’ stated concern that his past violent behavior might recur. H’Shaka’s confinement in Ad Seg was reviewed every 60 days by the Facility-Review Committee. Each time, the recommendation came back that he be kept in Ad Seg.

In 2017, the prison’s Central Office Committee noted that H’Shaka had maintained good behavior for the prior two years and was a strong candidate for transition. Other DCCS employees also wrote that his behavior warranted a less-restrictive environment but none made any formal recommendations in his reviews.

H’Shaka’s suit alleged that his right to procedural due process was denied because he wasn’t provided any meaningful review of his continued placement in Ad Seg, and that his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment was denied because of the conditions and duration of his confinement. Several DCCS employees were named as defendants, including Acting Deputy Commissioner for Correctional Facilities James O’Gorman.

The Court observed that meaningful periodic review of continued placement in Ad Seg is required, citing Proctor v. LeClaire, 846 F.3d 597 (2d Cir. 1997). Such a review requires (1) that officials actually evaluate whether continued confinement is justified; (2) that they make their evaluation based on current inmate behavior, though they may also give significant weight to past events; and (3) that continue confinement in Ad Seg must be based on a valid reason such as institutional security and not to impose punishment.

Because DCCS had recognized H’Shaka’s good behavior for a two-year period, the Court said, a fact-finder could determine he was not being held in Ad Seg for a valid reason. Thus, summary judgment requested by DCCS was precluded on this issue.

Regarding the Eighth Amendment claim related to conditions of confinement, H’Shaka had to satisfy an objective test and a subjective test. Objectively, he had to “demonstrate that the conditions of his confinement result in unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs” such that the conditions “pose an unreasonable risk of serious damage to his health;” and subjectively, he had to “demonstrate that the defendants imposed the conditions with deliberate indifference,” citing Walker v. Schult, 717 F.3d 119 (2d Cir. 2013).

When determining whether the conditions of confinement violate the Eighth Amendment, courts are to consider the duration of the confinement. Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678 (1978). In Reynolds v. Arnone, 402 F.Supp.3d 3 (D. Conn. 2019) it was found that conditions similar to H’Shaka’s, including limited ability for meaningful social interaction, constituted a deprivation of basic needs where the inmate had already spent 23 years in those conditions. In this case, H’Shaka had been in SHU and Ad Seg for 23 years.

Consequently, the Court said a fact-finder could determine he satisfied the objective element of the test. As to the subjective element, it was shown in the procedural due process claim that a fact-finder could conclude the placement in Ad Seg was without penological justification and, in such cases, this satisfies the standard to prevail on Eighth Amendment conditions-of-confinement claims. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002). Thus, DCCS’s motion for summary judgment was precluded as to this claim as well.

Accordingly, the Court entered an order denying summary judgment as to the procedural due process claim and to the conditions of confinement claim and directed the parties to enter into settlement negotiations, which resulted in H’Shaka’s release from Ad Seg. See: H’Shaka v. O’Gorman, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42908. 

 

Related legal case

H’Shaka v. O’Gorman