Federal Judge Approves Solitary Confinement Overhaul in New York State

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
March 31, 2016 12:00 pm

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March 31, 2016 — Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin today approved a settlement agreement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State that will comprehensively overhaul solitary confinement in New York State — one of the largest prison systems in the country — and provide a framework for ending the state’s overreliance on extreme isolation. The agreement will result in the end of traditional solitary confinement for more than 1,100 people — one-quarter of the current solitary population — who will either be placed in alternative units or provided with less isolating, more rehabilitative conditions. The settlement will further eliminate solitary confinement as punishment for minor violations, limit the duration of most solitary sentences and abolish several of solitary’s most dehumanizing features.

The agreement, which was announced last December, came as a result of the 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer, brought by the NYCLU with pro bono co-counsel Morrison & Foerster and co-counsel Professor Alexander Reinert of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, that challenged the system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement in New York state prisons.

In her order approving the agreement, Judge Scheindlin noted the significance of the Peoples litigation, calling it “…the best example of the power of impact litigation to redress conditions that affect the most vulnerable members of our society.”

“This settlement, which I approve today, will greatly reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of solitary confinement in New York State prisons. While there is undoubtedly more work to be done, both with respect to solitary confinement and with the conditions of prisons in general, this settlement should end the use of conditions of solitary confinement in New York as they have existed for decades. It is also my hope that the contours of this Settlement Agreement, and the collaborative process by which it was reached, will serve as a model for other states that are addressing issues of prison reform.”

“Solitary confinement is a drastic and punitive designation, one that should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time to serve the penal purposes for which it is designed. It is well know that such confinement causes deterioration of the mental and physical condition of inmates. The Settlement Agreement is a critical step in addressing the problems caused by the excessive use of solitary confinement and the conditions of that confinement. Now that the Settlement Agreement has been finalized and is about to be implemented, enforced, and monitored, the conditions of those currently assigned to solitary confinement–and of those who will be so assigned in the future–will be more humane and more just.”

Judge Scheindlin also excerpted from letters from incarcerated individual that wrote to the court in support of the settlement. One current New York state prisoner wrote, “[The Settlement Agreement] is a fair and long awaited change in the SHU confinement procedures, in all honesty I didn’t think it would ever happen . . . From what I see this settlement agreement will improve things greatly for prisoners in [solitary].” Another said, “I feel that if the Judge does approve the settlement it will be a success not only because it will help those like myself in extreme isolation but it will be great for society…it will help rehabilitate those of us who will be returning to the outside world.”

Below are reactions to Judge Scheindlin’s order:

“Today we begin the process of reversing decades of abuse of solitary confinement — an inhumane punishment that has robbed countless incarcerated men and women of their basic dignity,” said Taylor Pendergrass, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU and lead counsel in Peoples. “We wholeheartedly share Judge Scheindlin’s hopes that this agreement, and the collaborative process through which it was reached, can serve as a model for the rest of the country and result in a more humane, safe and just prison system.”

“The governor’s office has responded to this lawsuit in the best way possible, becoming a vital partner in working with us to overhaul solitary confinement and improve everyone’s safety, both in and out of prison,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director at the NYCLU. “It is our hope that this historic settlement leads to the end of the abuse of solitary confinement in New York – in both state and local facilities — once and for all.”

“I want to thank Judge Scheindlin for taking the time to put the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on the right track towards rehabilitation, and for reforming us individuals who want to be successful parts of society,” said Peoples plaintiff Dewayne Richardson, who was sentenced to 1,095 days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents.

To read the order, visit: http://www.nyclu.org/news/federal-judge-approves-solitary-confinement-overhaul-new-york-state

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