NYCLU Seeks Class-Action Status in Challenge to Use of Solitary Confinement in NY Prisons

March 6, 2013 —  In a court filing today, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster took steps to obtain class-action status in a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison officials’ policies and practices that result in the arbitrary, inhumane and unconstitutional use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

The filing is an amended class-action complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, a lawsuit the NYCLU filed on behalf of Leroy Peoples, who spent 780 days confined in extreme isolation as punishment for non-violent misbehavior that involved no threat to the safety or security of others. Today’s filing seeks to extend the scope of the lawsuit to include all individuals incarcerated in state prisons similarly affected by Department of Corrections and Community Supervision policies and practices permitting the arbitrary and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

“Solitary confinement and extreme isolation are uniquely cruel and debilitating punishments that are being routinely imposed on people for a range of non-violent disciplinary infractions,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Prison officials’ arbitrary and inhumane use of extreme isolation for such extraordinarily long amounts of time inflicts excruciating suffering on thousands of individuals each year and makes our prisons and communities less safe. If they refuse to end this practice, we are confident that the courts will require them to do so.”

The lawsuit maintains that thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York prisons are subjected to grossly disproportionate sentences of extreme isolation for disciplinary infractions, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. It alleges that the frequency with which New York prisons use isolation as punishment is 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.

The amended complaint also lists two new named plaintiffs, in addition to 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. Fenton was given three separate sentences to solitary confinement, all for non-violent conduct. The first sentence, of 365 days, was for allegedly helping another prisoner purchase a hair dryer, curling iron and a pair of sneakers. The second sentence was for reporting a sexual assault that DOCCS deemed unsubstantiated, and the third sentence was for sending court personnel a sample of the food she is served in solitary as evidence in a lawsuit she had filed on her own behalf challenging conditions in solitary.

Fenton, a Queens resident and the mother of two teenage sons, spent 23 hours a day locked down in a tiny, barren cell. Like all prisoners in extreme isolation, she was denied all meaningful human contact or mental stimulation. Her sons and her domestic partner could not speak to her on the phone and could only visit her once a week. On occasion, they were turned away from the prison without the chance to see her.

“Having a loved one in prison is a constant worry, but having one in solitary confinement causes even greater stress and a sense of inadequacy because you are unable to provide any support,” said Lakeesha Robinson, Fenton’s domestic partner. “Many nights I have lost sleep wondering if Tonja was ok. Did she eat today? Was she allowed to shower? Was she able to get her medical treatment? Did any staff check on her today? Is she even alive? These are the thoughts that kept me up at night.”

The complaint alleges that Fenton’s physical and mental health has deteriorated as a result of her prolonged isolation in solitary confinement. Her family has recognized dramatic changes in her: She speaks differently, is less focused when she speaks, does not complete one thought before jumping to the next, and snaps impatiently. After hours of forced idleness, Fenton is sometimes overcome by sudden impulses to scream. She talks to herself just to hear a voice.

The complaint notes that prison officials imposed the three solitary confinement sentences on Fenton without any finding that her conduct posed a threat to the physical safety or security of staff or other prisoners.

“Ms. Fenton’s case typifies the state’s all-too-common arbitrary and unjustified use of solitary confinement as punishment,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel on the case. “In the case of someone like Ms. Fenton – who will soon be released from prison and who had been working hard to prepare for a successful return to her family and her community – her sentence to solitary reveals not only the inhumanity and unconstitutionality of the practice in New York’s prisons, but also just how costly and counterproductive these policies are for everyone.”

“In the past month, we’ve seen the New York State Bar Association and the New York City Bar Association both calling for the comprehensive reform of New York’s use of extreme isolation, and for good reason,” said David J. Fioccola, partner at Morrison & Foerster. “There is widespread consensus in the legal community that reform is not only desperately needed to protect basic human dignity and reaffirm our respect for fundamental constitutional rights, but also that reforms will make our prisons and our communities safer.”

As highlighted in the NYCLU’s recent investigative report, Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, 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 4,300 people – about 8 percent of the entire New York State prison population – are locked down for 23 hours a day in isolation cells.

“More than 100 years ago, corrections officials around the country, legislators, and even the United States Supreme Court recognized the serious harms caused by extreme isolation,” said Alex Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “New York’s unsupervised and arbitrary use of solitary flies in the face of 19th Century sensibilities, let alone modern notions of human dignity.”

Joining Pendergrass, Fioccola and Reinert on the case are NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, NYCLU Legal Fellow Daniel Mullkoff, NYCLU Legal Fellow Elena Landriscina, and attorneys Jennifer K. Brown, Daniel Matza-Brown, Adam J. Hunt and Kayvan B. Sadeghi of Morrison & Foerster.