NEW YORK (AP) — New York's sweeping plan to overhaul and reduce the use of solitary confinement in its prisons has its roots in a lawsuit, initially scrawled out by an inmate who had been sent to "the box" for more than 1,000 days for non-violent, minor offenses.
As the practice of putting inmates in 6-by-10-foot cells alone for 23 hours each day as punishment is increasingly criticized across the nation, most of the handful of states that have taken action thus far have been prodded, at least in part, by lawsuits that have alleged solitary for extended stretches is overused, harsh and psychologically damaging.
"It's a common phenomenon that an actual lawsuit is the catalyst for solitary reform," said David Fathi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "But it's better when prison officials decide to do the right thing without being sued. They know their system best, they know what the problems are."
There are an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Americans currently locked away in solitary, according to federal statistics. The practice has been used for decades not just in so-called supermax facilities for particularly dangerous people but throughout prison systems as punishment for inmates who break internal rules.
In September, California settled its own class-action lawsuit, announcing that it will end the longstanding practice of automatically and indefinitely putting gang members in solitary confinement.
Recent reforms to solitary for prisoners in states such as Mississippi and Arizona, as well as for juveniles in Ohio, also have resulted from lawsuits.
New York, with 60,000 inmates in 54 prisons, has about 4,000 in solitary at any given time, meaning confinement for 23 hours a day, with one hour a day for recreation. The new plan calls for moving about 1,100 put there for minor or nonviolent offenses into secure, therapeutic housing units instead, reducing the number of violations that carry solitary sentences and imposing a three-month maximum sentence for most rule violations.
But some states have taken the initiative to reduce the reliance on isolation on their own.
Prison officials in Maine, Michigan and Colorado have all voluntarily sought ways to limit the number of people held in solitary in their custody.
Other states, such as Nebraska, are starting to examine solitary more closely, particularly as legislatures across the country consider bans for the most vulnerable inmates, such as juveniles, people with serious mental illnesses and pregnant women.
There also may be other movement toward reforming, if not curtailing, the use of solitary, experts said.
For the first time, proposed standards before the American Correctional Association would include so-called step-down policies that offer prisoners who have been housed in solitary gradually increasing out-of-cell time, group interaction and programming before they're put back in general population or released from custody.
"This decade of work has teed up the problem to be solved but it hasn't solved it yet," said Margo Schlanger, an expert on solitary confinement at the University of Michigan Law School. "The states that have taken either baby steps or big steps have not seen increases in violence result."
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to negotiate after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed its lawsuit in 2011, state officials have said.
"We are New York and we have to lead by example," the governor told his staff in instructing them to negotiate broad reforms, said his top lawyer, Alphonso David.