NEW YORK (AP) — New York prison officials agreed Wednesday to overhaul their use of solitary confinement, offering a broad slate of reforms aimed at reducing the number of inmates sent to "the box," limiting the amount of time they can spend there and providing counseling to help long-term solitary inmates adjust to life on the outside.
With 60,000 inmates in 54 prisons, New York is among the largest of a handful of states that have taken such actions in the face of growing criticism of isolation as punishment for offenses behind bars. New York's agreement settles a lawsuit arguing the state's use of solitary was extraordinarily harsh and psychologically damaging.
"Massive culture change is a challenge," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit four years ago. "We need to be monitoring like a hawk, and we will be monitoring like a hawk to ensure that the reforms are actually carried out."
Once approved by a judge, some of the reforms outlined in the $62 million, five-year plan should be implemented within three months.
About 4,000 New York state prisoners at any given time are in solitary, which means confinement in a 6-by-10-foot cell 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.
The agreement also requires the state to retrain its 20,000 prison guards on de-escalation and other techniques, caps the number of days to 30 a prisoner will serve for a first-time, nonviolent offense, reduces the number of violations that carry solitary sentences and for the first time imposes a three-month maximum sentence for most rule violations.
The agreement leaves open exceptions for prisoners who commit extreme acts of violence or escape but also provides so-called step-down mental health and job-training programs to effectively acclimate prisoners who have been in long-term isolation, even for violent offenses, before they're released from custody.
After the NYCLU filed its lawsuit in 2011, Gov. Andrew Cuomo saw it as an opportunity to improve New York's prison standards and instructed his staff to negotiate, said Alphonso David, the governor's top lawyer
"This agreement will not only decrease the number of people who will enter solitary confinement but it will also create a safer environment" for prison guards and the community, David said.
Corrections officials in Colorado, Mississippi and Washington have already taken steps to severely reduce their reliance on long-term isolation. Last year, a state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended the practice be eliminated for young inmates, citing growing evidence that the practice is emotionally and mentally harmful.
But the success of the proposed reforms in New York will likely depend on the cooperation of the powerful union representing prison guards, which was not a direct party to the negotiations, and has long argued that solitary is necessary to control prison blocks.
New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers said in a statement that while his union was still reviewing the settlement, "it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis."
Tonja Fenton, one of the plaintiffs in the NYCLU lawsuit, served 270 days in solitary for three minor offenses, including one for mailing a sample of a barely edible vegetable-based food item served in solitary called "the loaf" to a court.
"Like me, I think New York got lost in 'the box,'" she said. "Today we're finding a way out."
This story has been corrected to change the spelling of the NYCLU's executive director's last name to Lieberman.