The New York State prison system is about to become the largest in the country to ban the use of solitary confinement as punishment for prisoners under 18, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state in federal court over its use of extreme isolation as a form of punishment.
In addition the state's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision agreed to restrict the use for pregnant women and the developmentally disabled, and to allow inmates in extreme isolation more time out of their cells.
Those are just some of the groundbreaking changes the department agreed to in an effort to settle the lawsuit. Under the agreement, both sides will suspend the lawsuit for two years while they try to reach a permanent settlement. NYCLU and the state have also agreed to let two "nationally recognized corrections experts" make recommendations to reform the department's use of isolation cells, according to a statement from NYCLU.
The experts are James Austin, the former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University, and Eldon Vail, the former chief of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Austin and Vail will issue their recommendations this spring, according to NYCLU.
The agreement comes amid a national discussion over the use of solitary confinement, which many now see as doing more harm than good.
"This agreement really puts New York at the forefront of facing the issue head on and dealing with it in a very positive and proactive manner," said Taylor Pendergrass, senior staff attorney at NYCLU.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision provided a prepared statement on behalf of Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci.
“The interim stipulation that was approved by the Court today, following months of negotiations, will result in historic and appropriate changes in the use and conditions of special housing units, while preserving the health and safety of our staff and inmate population," according to the statement. "These are important reforms that will make the disciplinary practices in New York’s prisons more humane, and ultimately, our state’s criminal justice system more fair and progressive, while maintaining safety and security.”
The union for correction officers, however, was more critical. The New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association released a statement on behalf of President Donn Rowe.
“Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis," according to the statement. "It is a fact that our state's corrections facilities have become more overcrowded with a higher proportion of violent offenders than ever before, and any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or lives in these institutions. As the men and women who stand on the front lines ensuring order in some of the nation's most dangerous prisons, we look forward to carefully reviewing this agreement.”