Peoples v. Fischer (Challenging policies governing use of solitary confinement in New York's prisons)

S.D.N.Y., Index No. 11 CIV 2964 SAS (direct)

This lawsuit challenged the system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement responsible for the arbitrary and unjustified use of extreme isolation on thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York’s prisons every year.

The plaintiff, Leroy Peoples, spent 780 days locked in tiny, barren cell the size of an elevator with another prisoner for 24 hours a day as punishment for misbehavior that involved no violence and no threat to the safety or security of others.

The lawsuit maintained that Mr. Peoples’ grossly disproportionate punishment was caused by unconstitutional policies that similarly affect thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York prisons. It alleged that the frequency with which New York prisons used isolation as punishment was a direct result of official policies that permit staff to impose extraordinarily long isolation sentences regardless of whether the individual’s behavior demonstrated any danger to the safety and security of prison staff or other prisoners, with few guidelines or restraints, and with inadequate consideration of the physical and psychological risk that isolation may pose to a particular individual.

From 2007 to 2011, New York issued over 68,000 sentences to extreme isolation as punishment for violating prison rules. On any given day, approximately 4,500 people – about 8 percent of the entire New York State prison population – were locked down for 23 hours a day in isolation cells.

The lawsuit alleged that New York’s lack of adequate guidelines allowed the prison disciplinary process to be inappropriately influenced by discriminatory intent. Black New Yorkers are disproportionally represented in the extreme isolation population as compared to the state’s general prison population, and blacks are punished more harshly with isolation sentences than prisoners of other racial groups for similar misbehavior.

The lawsuit also challenged New York’s official policy of “double-celling,” the practice of placing two strangers inside a single isolation cell where they must endure intimate, constant proximity 24 hours a day without respite for weeks, months and years on end. The lawsuit alleged New York officials continued the practice of double-celling despite evidence that it is known to result in violence between double-celled individuals.

In 2009, Mr. Peoples, who is black, was sentenced to 36 months in isolation at Upstate Correctional Facility, which double cells prisoners, for a non-violent offense involving the purposeful filing of false legal documents. He served 26 months (780 days) at Upstate. (His sentence was later reduced by 10 months for good behavior.) This was not the first time Mr. Peoples suffered the consequences of New York’s practice of allowing extreme isolation as punishment for non-violent misbehavior. In 2005, Mr. Peoples was sentenced to six-months in isolation, also served at Upstate, for unauthorized possession of multi-vitamins and amino acids – available at the prison commissary – in his cell.

On March 6, 2013, the NYCLU filed a third amended complaint that sought to extend the scope of the lawsuit to include all individuals incarcerated in state prisons similarly affected by Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) policies and practices permitting the arbitrary and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

The amended complaint also listed two new named plaintiffs, in addition to Mr. Peoples, including Tonja Fenton, who was sent to prison for a non-violent crime and who spent the past 270 days in solitary confinement mostly at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County.

On February 19, 2014, the NYCLU and the DOCCS announced an agreement to reform not only the way solitary confinement is used in New York State’s prisons, but with the state taking immediate steps to remove youth, pregnant inmates, and developmentally disabled and intellectually challenged prisoners from extreme isolation.

Under the joint agreement, the state agreed to adopt sentencing guidelines for the first time, and set first-ever maximum limits on isolation-sentence lengths.

With the agreement, New York State became the largest prison system in the United States to prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure against prisoners who are younger than 18.

If the process is successful as anticipated, the expert recommendations agreed upon by both parties will be implemented, analyzed and memorialized in a final settlement agreement in two years. If the process fails, the NYCLU will resume litigation.

Attorneys on the case included NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass and Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn; attorneys David J. Fioccola, Jennifer K. Brown, Daniel Matza-Brown, Adam J. Hunt, Kayvan B. Sadeghi, and Elena Landriscina of the law firm of Morrison & Foerster; and Alex Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law