New York State's prison system, one of the largest in the country, today announced a set of reforms that will aim to cut the ranks of prisoners in solitary confinement by at least 25 percent, as part of a $62 million settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union.
There are currently about 4,000 inmates in solitary confinement in New York State, who spend 23 hours a day in 6'x10' cells with minimal interpersonal interaction.
Today's settlement [PDF] culminates three years of negotiations over a class action lawsuit filed by the NYCLU, accusing the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision [DOCCS] of liberally administering harsh and inhumane solitary sentences. The lead plaintiff on the case, Leroy Peoples, spent 780 consecutive days in solitary confinement for filing false paperwork, according to the suit.
The NYCLU reached an interim agreement in February 2014, banning isolation as a disciplinary measure for minors, as well as pregnant inmates.
"New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. "Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort."
The settlement announced today is multi-pronged—in addition to removing more than 1,100 inmates from solitary for a range of circumstances (inmates with the longest solitary sentences will benefit, as well as those struggling with drug addiction or in need of therapy), DOCCS will narrow the scope of infractions punishable with solitary confinement.
For first-time violators accused of certain non-violent violations, the maximum sentence will be 30 days. Just shy of half of the total 87 rule violations to which inmates can fall privy, including drug use or possession, will no longer be punishable with solitary confinement on the first offense.
Solitary confinement for a disciplinary violation will max out at 90 days, with the exception of assault and escape accusations.
The NY Times points out that, as a result of today's settlement, some of the vague and indiscriminately-applied infractions, like "disobeying orders," will be punishable with no more than a month of solitary.
This is the first time New York has imposed any caps on solitary confinement sentences. A 2010 NYCLU report [PDF] found that DOCCS 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.
Peoples was issued a much longer sentence at Upstate Correctional Facility in 2009—26 months for intentionally filing false legal documents. Four years previous, he had served six months for possessing unauthorized amino acids and multi-vitamins, according to the NYCLU. At Upstate, inmates in solitary are "double-celled," or confined to tiny cells with one other person.
Another set of reforms is aimed at making an inmate's experience in solitary more humane—to a point. Prisoners will have access to phone calls, but only once a month for those in long-term isolation. Reading material will be made available in solitary, and a shower curtain for privacy while using the toilet. DOCCS will also abolish food-as-punishment in the form of the "loaf," a notorious brick of bland bread and potatoes. Instead, inmates will receive fruit, cheeses, and cold cuts, according to the settlement.
"It's like we're begging for human rights," said Five Omar Mualimm-ak of the Incarcerated Nation Corp. Mualimm-ak, who worked with the NYCLU on the reform package, spent five years in solitary confinement himself, and is a vocal reform advocate. "It's a great first step, but we just need to end solitary for certain categories of inmates."
"One of the things I was hoping would come out of this," he added, "was legal representation for people in solitary facing additional charges." With such representation, he argues, inmates could challenge the violations that land them in solitary in the first place.
The New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association has already expressed skepticism, describing solitary confinement as a "real measure of discipline" that would be "limited" under the proposed reforms.
"Our state's disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis," they said.
Pending court approval, the reforms will be implemented over the course of a three year period, followed by two years of close monitoring by the state.