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Class Certified in Suit Alleging Overuse of Solitary Confinement in New York Prisons

by Matt Clarke

On September 11, 2023, class-action status was granted to a suit filed the previous April against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), accusing the prison agency of ignoring provisions of the Humane Alternatives to Long-term Solitary Confinement (HALT) Act, Correctional Law § 137(6)(k)(ii).

HALT was enacted in 2021 in response to public concerns over the harmful impact of widespread use of lengthy solitary confinement by DOCCS. It limits placement in “segregated confinement,” which it defines as in-cell confinement exceeding 17 hours per day, to a maximum of three consecutive days or six days in any 30-day period, with a few specified exceptions.

To extend segregated confinement beyond those periods or places, a prisoner in a Residential Rehabilitation Unit, a Residential Mental Health Treatment Unit, or another alternative to solitary confinement, DOCCS must first find “‘by written decision’ and ‘pursuant to an evidentiary hearing’ that an individual committed one or more of the seven acts specifically enumerated in” the statute and that the acts “‘were so heinous or destructive’ that placing the individual in general-population housing would create both a ‘significant risk of imminent serious physical injury’ and an ‘unreasonable risk’ to facility security.”

The seven acts involve physical injury, sexual assault, extortion, coercion, major prison disruptions, possession of weapons or dangerous contraband, as well as escape. Even if all those criteria are met, however, the law places an absolute limit on segregation of 15 consecutive days or 20 days within any 60-day period.

Named plaintiffs Fuquan Fields and Luis Garcia were accused of assaulting guards with bodily waste and sentenced to long periods in segregation—180 days and 720 days, respectively—for misconduct that did not appear to fall within one of the seven categories, their suit noted. They alleged that DOCCS instructs disciplinary staff “to treat all conduct charged as ‘Tier III’ infractions as categorically constituting one of the seven” prohibited acts, as stated in the agency’s Review Officer Training Manual. “Accordingly, DOCCS routinely sentences individuals to extended solitary confinement without any individuated determination” that the charged conduct was in fact a prohibited act. Thus, prisoners are often segregated for months or even years for misconduct that was clearly not a violation of the HALT limitations.

The lawsuit also alleged that DOCCS continues to segregate prisoners for periods of time far in excess of those imposed by HALT, pursuant to the department’s Extended Segregation Policy (ESP). Under ESP, prisoners are segregated for Tier III misconduct such as committing an “unhygienic act” by “spitting on the floor” in violation of HALT’s restrictions. Further, between January 1 and February 28, 2023, 14% of prisoners serving time in segregation had exceeded the 20-day-within-60-days limit, and 22 had exceeded the 15-consecutive-day limit.

DOCCS filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but the Court denied that motion and granted the suit class-action status, agreeing with Plaintiffs that “joinder of all members of the purported class is impracticable and there are questions of law and fact that are common to the entire class which clearly predominate over the specific questions that affect only the individual members before the Court.”

Since HALT’s enactment, DOCCS has sentenced 9,700 prisoners to segregation for an average of 102 days each, flaunting the law’s limits. “Between April 2022 and late February 2023, DOCCS handed down more than 2,700 years’ worth of solitary confinement sentences,” the suit noted.

Attorneys Anthony P.F. Gemmell, Molly K. Biklen, Ifeyinwa K. Cikezie and Courtney L. Colwell of the New York Civil Liberties Union Foundation represented Plaintiffs, along with fellow attorneys Elise M. Czhchna, James M. Bogin, Matthew P. McGowan, Andrew A. Stecker and Hallie E. Mitnick of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, as well as Alexis B. Katteron of Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic. See: Fields v. Annucci, N.Y. Supr. (Albany Cty.), Case No. 902997-23.  

Additional source: New York Focus

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Related legal case

Fields v. Annucci