World and Nation

Spurred by lawsuit, New York to limit solitary confinement

New York state has agreed to sweeping reforms intended to curtail the widespread use of solitary confinement, including prohibiting its use in disciplining prisoners under 18.

In doing so, New York becomes the largest prison system in the United States to bar the use of disciplinary confinement for minors, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented the three prisoners whose lawsuit led to the agreement cited in court papers filed Wednesday.

State correction officials will also be prohibited from imposing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for inmates who are pregnant, and the punishment will be limited to 30 days for those who are developmentally disabled, the court filing says.

The agreement also imposes “sentencing guidelines” for all prisoners, 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. No such guidelines exist, except in cases involving certain violent and drug-related offenses.

“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.

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. Taylor Pendergrass, the lead lawyer in the case for the civil liberties group, said that a handful of states have also banned or limited the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 18.

But given New York’s size and visibility, the agreement places 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,” Pendergrass said.

The agreement also calls for the NYCLU and the state to each designate an expert to assess current disciplinary practices across 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 filing, by lawyers for the plaintiffs and the state, asks the judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, to delay the litigation while the process takes place. The judge gave that approval Wednesday.