New York, Prodded by Suit, Becomes Latest to Reform Solitary

23 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

NY to overhaul use of solitary confinement in prisons.

NEW YORK (AP) — New York’s sweeping plan to overhaul and reduce the use of solitary confinement in its prisons has its roots in a lawsuit, initially scrawled out by an inmate who had been sent to “the box” for more than 1,000 days for non-violent, minor offenses. New York state announced Wednesday it will reduce the number of inmates it holds in isolation by one-fourth and modify conditions surrounding the practice, in a move hailed by prison-reform activists.New York agreed on Wednesday to overhaul how thousands of state inmates are punished within prison walls, settling a longstanding lawsuit by accepting a range of reforms to how solitary confinement operates.

As the practice of putting inmates in 6-by-10-foot cells alone for 23 hours each day as punishment is increasingly criticized across the nation, most of the handful of states that have taken action thus far have been prodded, at least in part, by lawsuits that have alleged solitary for extended stretches is overused, harsh and psychologically damaging. “It’s a common phenomenon that an actual lawsuit is the catalyst for solitary reform,” said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “But it’s better when prison officials decide to do the right thing without being sued. She was there for three infractions of prison rules: purchasing socks and a hair dryer for another inmate, mailing a sample of prison food to court as part of an official complaint, and for allegedly falsely accusing a guard of sexual assault. They know their system best, they know what the problems are.” There are an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Americans currently locked away in solitary, according to federal statistics.

For these apparent transgressions, Fenton, like so many prisoners in the state and across the country, found herself in punitive, solitary confinement. “You don’t hear any other voices,” Fenton recalled in a phone call with reporters Wednesday. “You speak out loud to hear yourself. The practice has been used for decades not just in so-called supermax facilities for particularly dangerous people but throughout prison systems as punishment for inmates who break internal rules.

In addition, it will significantly reduce the types of violations that land inmates in isolation and will keep solitary punishment under three months for all but a handful of violations. Inmates in both kinds of solitary typically spend 23 hours per day alone in tiny concrete cells, and in many cases they are released directly to the street when their prison sentences are up. You forget what it feels like to be human.” “I got lost in that box,” she said, and when she finally got out, Fenton said something about her “wasn’t right.” She and her partner of 23 years split, and it was hard for her to remember life before “the box.” “Solitary kills everything that’s spontaneous,” she said. “It drains your speech, thought, communications … The agreement leaves open exceptions for prisoners who commit extreme acts of violence or escape but also provides so-called step-down programs to effectively acclimate prisoners who have been in long-term isolation, even for violent offenses, before they’re released from custody.

In September, California settled its own class-action lawsuit, announcing that it will end the longstanding practice of automatically and indefinitely putting gang members in solitary confinement. Recent reforms to solitary for prisoners in states such as Mississippi and Arizona, as well as for juveniles in Ohio, also have resulted from lawsuits. Under the new rules proposed in Wednesday’s settlement—which was negotiated by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the administration of New York Gov. According to an announcement from the NYCLU, the list of 87 disciplinary violations that are currently punishable by solitary will be cut to 64, and of those, only 22 will be punishable by solitary for people who have no previous violations.

Last year, a state advisory committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights recommended the practice be eliminated for young inmates, citing growing evidence that the practice is emotionally and mentally harmful. The settlement, which would cost an estimated $62 million to implement, also places a three-month limit on the amount of time a person can be kept in solitary for most first-time violations, and a 30-day limit in cases where the violation is nonviolent.

But the success of the proposed reforms in New York will likely depend on the cooperation of the powerful union representing prison guards, which was not a direct party to the negotiations, and has long argued that solitary is necessary to control prison blocks. For inmates in long-term segregation, the settlement promises to introduce new “step-down” programs in select prisons, where they will get more “out-of-cell time” in the form of behavioral therapy and recreation. This goal is notable in part because it is not limited to any particular kind of inmate, meaning it will apply to everyone, not just, for instance, juveniles or the mentally ill.

Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel on the case that led to Wednesday’s agreement, has previously expressed concern that less comprehensive reforms, which function as carve-outs for specific groups, unintentionally reinforce the status quo for everyone else. Under the $62 million settlement announced Wednesday, about 1,100 people in solitary will either be moved into more rehabilitative units with common spaces and group activities, or will be transferred to less isolated units. These 1,100 people will be composed primarily of those serving the longest solitary sentences, many of whom have developmental disabilities or suffer from addiction. The corrections department will also begin a pilot program to provide offline tablet computers to inmates, but there are 30 for the entire state system.

The lead plaintiff in the NYCLU’s case, Leroy Peoples, described his experience of two years in isolation as “mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” in a statement. Additionally, they’ll be allowed to make more telephone calls, have more access to reading materials, and will no longer be fed “the loaf.” (Lieberman described the loaf Wednesday as “an indigestible brick that is known to severely interfere with a person’s digestion. Sullivan, who works with prison systems around the country to reduce their dependence on solitary confinement, said in an interview that step-down programs and restrictions on punitive segregation have been shown to work well in other jurisdictions. Sullivan, who was not involved in the settlement, said she was particularly impressed with the changes to disciplinary segregation policy laid out in the agreement. “Changing disciplinary sanctions is huge,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes you’ll see jurisdictions where a lot of the focus and movement has been on the long-term administrative segregation guys. Although African-Americans make up less than 15 percent of the state’s population, they represent nearly 60 percent of those the state locks up in solitary.

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