As part of a sweeping settlement agreement to reform the way solitary confinement is used in the state, today New York's prison system became the largest in the country to ban isolation as a disciplinary measure for prisoners under 18.
According to an NYCLU release, the state will take immediate steps to prevent inmates who are pregnant, under the age of 18, and developmentally disabled or intellectually challenged, from serving time in extreme isolation, while isolation as a disciplinary tactic will be reviewed by experts with the aim toward meaningfully reducing it over the next two years.
An NYCLU report found that the NYS Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is extremely liberal with sentencing its inmates to solitary confinement—the average time spent in isolation for a prisoner is 150 days, five to ten times longer than experts say is tolerable. The release describes the treatment in solitary:
Currently, inmates held in isolation are either confined in their cells 23 hours a day entirely alone - with an hour outdoors daily in a walled-in solitary pen, with meals delivered through a slot in the cell door - or with another inmate in a cell the size of a parking space that includes an open toilet and shower. Prisoners in isolation are denied access to educational classes, and more than 2,000 are released from these conditions directly to their home communities every year.
Leroy Peoples and Dewayne Richardson both served 780 consecutive days in isolation after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents.
The NYCLU, along with professor Alexander Reinert at the Cardozo School of Law, and attorneys at Morrison & Foerster sued on their behalf. “This agreement is an important step toward dignity and decency,” Peoples says. “I thank the governor for taking this seriously and hearing us out.”
“We agreed to suspend our lawsuit because the State demonstrated in the course of these negotiations a real commitment to reform," NYCLU senior staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass said. "If this collaborative approach is successful, we will see a sharp reduction in the use and duration of extreme isolation."
Governor Cuomo has pushed for a new jobs program for inmates and raising the age of criminal responsibility, which is currently 16.
In a statement, acting DOCCS commissioner Anthony Annucci said, "These are important reforms that will make the disciplinary practices in New York’s prisons more humane, and ultimately, our state’s criminal justice system more fair and progressive, while maintaining safety and security.”