On Wednesday, New York State correctional system announced an upcoming overhaul of their solitary confinement process. As one of the largest prison systems in America, this move could signal a trend for the rest of America, if shifts go according to plan.
According to a press release from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the biggest changes are as follows:
- Remove over 1,100 people from traditional solitary confinement by relocating them to common spaces or less isolating disciplinary units.
- Restrictions on how long a prisoner can be kept in isolation as punishment for crimes like drug use and drug possession.
- Restrictions on solitary as a corrections officer’s first response in diffusing situations.
- The maximum sentence for solitary confinement is three months for most offenses, excluding assault and escape, and a maximum of 30 days of solitude for all first-time non-violent violations.
- Automatic early release for good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming.
- Allowances for one telephone call every 30 days, more reading materials, a shower curtain for toilet privacy and the end of “the loaf,” a combination of bread and root vegetables used as a “starvation punishment.” Corrections has three months to replace it with “a nutritious, calorie-sufficient, and palatable alternative meal composed of regular food.”
Two years ago, New York State agreed to another interim settlement with the ACLU that ended solitary confinement for “pregnant women, most developmentally disabled inmates and any prisoner under age 18.”
Moving forward, the policy revisions are expected to cost $62 million, which include making “more rehabilitative spaces with group dayroom and outdoor space.” The sweeping reform is the result of Peoples v. Fischer, a 2012 class action lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union to combat abuse suffered by inmates in solitary in state prisons.
“Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” said lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents. “A major milestone has been accomplished today.”
“It isn’t just the people in the box who have been at risk,” said Sandy Peoples, Leroy Peoples’s wife. “These reforms are important for the families of incarcerated people.”
At this point, according to the New York Times, 4,000 inmates are in solitary for 23 hours a day for years with few moments of human contact and the aforementioned “loaf” for food. 50 have been in solitary for over five years. When they are released back into general population or society, they receive no rehabilitation aid in remembering, essentially, what it’s like to interact with other people.
And while the settlement is a victory for the ACLU and human rights in general, these changes aren’t set in stone.
Another major question is whether the corrections officers’ union, which has tremendous power in the prisons, will go along with the settlement. After the interim settlement was adopted in 2014, the union filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, challenging many of the new policies.
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