The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison officials' system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement that are responsible for the arbitrary and unjustified use of extreme isolation on thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York’s prisons every year.
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff, Leroy Peoples, spent 780 days locked in a 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.
“New York’s prison authorities permit the use extreme isolation – one of the harshest punishments one human can impose on another – as a disciplinary tool of first resort for violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This cruel and arbitrary punishment endangers prisoners and corrections officials alike, and it decreases safety in our prisons and communities.”
The lawsuit maintains that Mr. Peoples’ grossly disproportionate punishment was caused by unconstitutional policies that similarly affect thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York prisons. 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.
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 – are locked down for 23 hours a day in isolation cells.
As highlighted in the NYCLU’s recent investigative report “Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons,” only 16 percent of isolation sentences from 2007 to 2011 were for assault or weapons. The lawsuit contains new information obtained through a freedom of information request (available in its entirety on www.boxedinny.org/library), that provides more detail about the types of non-violent, even petty infractions that have resulted in isolation being imposed as punishment on incarcerated individuals. For example, from 2007 to 2011, prison officials imposed:
- 302 isolation sentences for “smoking in an undesignated area”
- 135 isolation sentences for “wasting food”
- 114 isolation sentences for “littering”
- 234 isolation sentences for “untidy cell or person”
“New York’s policies fail to provide for many of the most basic, common-sense safeguards universally recommended by correctional experts, mental health professionals, and human rights bodies,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel on the case. “New York’s permissive policies predictably result in a pattern of unjustified, arbitrary, and harmful punitive sentences to extreme isolation that violate our most fundamental human rights and negatively impact public safety inside and outside prison walls.”
Extreme isolation is different than prisoner separation, which is a long-accepted corrections practice. Corrections officials can separate and remove violent or vulnerable prisoners from the general prison population without subjecting them to the punishing physical and psychological harms of extreme isolation.
Correctional and mental health experts have long recommended that prison officials adopt minimum standards and criteria to ensure that individuals are separated from the general prison population only when necessary to address legitimate safety and security concerns, under the least restrictive conditions, and for the briefest time possible.
The lawsuit alleges that New York’s lack of adequate guidelines allows 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 challenges 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 alleges New York officials have 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.
“Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog,” Mr. Peoples said. “The ceaseless torment of being locked up every day in a tiny cell with another person is hard to describe. I hope this lawsuit results in change so that other human beings don’t have to endure the suffering that I lived through.”
Leroy’s wife, Sandy Peoples, would ride a bus eight hours from Brooklyn once a month to visit her husband at Upstate, which is near the U.S.-Canadian border. Prisoners in isolation cannot use the phone, meaning that they were unable to communicate regularly. The experience strained their family.
“He was very depressed and angry, and he just wanted to give up,” Mrs. Peoples said. “It’s already stressful having him in prison, and the box just doubles the stress.”
New York University Law School Civil Rights Clinic students Gabriel Hopkins, Kyle Valenti and Bill Swearingen worked with Pendergrass to prepare the lawsuit.