NEW YORK – New York State has agreed to sweeping changes that would curtail the widespread use of solitary confinement to punish prison infractions, according to court papers filed Wednesday.
Under the agreement, New York would become the largest U.S. prison system to bar the use of solitary confinement for disciplining prisoners younger than 18, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the three prisoners whose lawsuit led to the agreement.
The agreement says that 16- and 17-year-old prisoners who are subjected to even the most restrictive form of disciplinary confinement must be given at least five hours a day of outdoor exercise and programming outside of their cells.
State correction officials would also be prohibited from imposing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for inmates who are pregnant and limited to 30 days for those are developmentally disabled, the court filing says.
The agreement would also impose “sentencing guidelines” specifying the length of punishment allowed for different infractions and, for the first time in all cases, a maximum length that such sentences may run, the NYCLU said.
“New York State has done the right thing by committing to comprehensive reform of the way it uses extreme isolation, a harmful and inhumane practice that has for years been used as a punishment of first resort” in the state’s prisons, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the civil rights group.
In the court filing, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision says it “recognizes that disciplinary sanctions must never be arbitrary or capricious or overly severe and that a sound disciplinary system relies on certainty and promptness of action rather than upon severity.”
The agreement also calls for the NYCLU and the state to each designate an expert to assess current disciplinary practices in the state prisons and recommend further reforms.
If the reform process is successful, the lawsuit will be settled in two years, the civil rights group said. The joint filing asks the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, to place the litigation on hold while the process takes place. The judge gave that approval Wednesday.
Taylor Pendergrass, the lead lawyer in the case for the civil liberties group, said several states, including Washington, Mississippi and Colorado, had begun to address the issue of how to reduce the use of solitary confinement; a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee is holding a hearing next week on the issue. He said that a handful of states had also banned or limited the use of solitary confinement for inmates younger than 18, in adult or juvenile detention facilities.
But given New York’s size and visibility, Pendergrass said, the agreement would place the state “at the vanguard” of progressive thinking about how to move away from “a very punitive system that almost every state has adopted in one form or another over the last couple of decades.”