The use of solitary confinement has begun to drop considerably in New York state according to a report released today by the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The report shows the number of people held in solitary as punishment on any given day has dropped by 24 percent and that the average length of time spent in disciplinary solitary declined by 16 percent. The progress was achieved in the first year of a five-year settlement agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union, with additional improvements expected in the next two years.
“New York used to subject prisoners to the torture of solitary as punishment of first resort, but today’s report shows the beginning of an important shift away from those decades-old practices,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We will continue to closely monitor the progress made towards transforming the culture of solitary confinement in New York State prisons.”
The annual report released by DOCCS and other data provided by DOCCS to the NYCLU shows that between April 2016 and April 2017:
- The number of people in solitary for punishment dropped 24 percent.
- The average solitary sentence length imposed for violating prison rules dropped 16 percent.
- The number of people serving the longest sentences to solitary confinement, 180 days or more, dropped 36 percent.
- The number of people who received an additional sentence to solitary while already serving time in solitary, so called ‘back-to-back’ time, declined by 22 percent.
The reforms are the result of a 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Annucci, 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, which challenged the system-wide policies and practices governing disciplinary solitary confinement in New York State. A settlement between the NYCLU and the state, approved by a federal judge in April 2016, paved the way to a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s use of solitary confinement.
“Solitary bleeds you of your humanity. It breeds contempt, resentment and rage,” said Maximo Wallace, who is currently incarcerated in a ‘Special Housing Unit’ at Southport Correctional Facility and who is a member of the class in Peoples v. Annucci. “This settlement is making our experience more humane and rehabilitative. Before, the amount of solitary was extreme. But now we have access to phone calls in solitary because of the settlement. These calls are therapeutic. Being able to call our family just makes it more bearable. Human contact with the outside world makes all the difference.”
The settlement committed the state to provide less isolating and more rehabilitative conditions in regular solitary units. It must open alternative units with meaningful programming that should eventually house a large portion of prisoners facing long-term disciplinary confinement. It also eliminated the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor violations, limited the duration of most solitary sentences and abolished several of solitary’s most dehumanizing features, including serving inmates inedible food known as “the loaf.”
“This first year of our settlement was focused on building the foundation for culture change and permanent reform,” said Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney. “That meant investing in a systemwide retraining of thousands of corrections staff, creating unprecedented alternatives to solitary, and improving conditions in dozens of solitary units throughout the state prison system. We are encouraged by the initial progress and are optimistic about additional reforms that will come on-line in the upcoming years.”
Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of punishment used in the United States outside of the death penalty. It can cause severe psychological trauma and is linked to higher rates of recidivism and a reduction in public safety. The NYCLU’s 2012 report “Boxed In” showed that state prisons doled out thousands of sentences of extreme isolation every year, with some prisoners serving terms of years or even decades in solitary. Lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Leroy Peoples, served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials alleged he filed false legal documents.
In 2014, the NYCLU and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reached an interim settlement agreement under the Peoples case that provided immediate protections to those most vulnerable to the effects of solitary, including youth, pregnant women and prisoners with developmental disabilities. Under the terms of the final settlement agreement, the state will implement comprehensive reforms over the first three years, followed by a two-year monitoring period.