A federal judge approved a sweeping plan to reduce solitary confinement in New York state prisons Thursday, saying she hopes the deal to end decades-old practices becomes a model for other states confronting the harmful effects of extreme isolation.
U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin said the “historic settlement” will greatly reduce the frequency, duration and severity of solitary confinement for thousands of prisoners, making conditions “more humane and more just.”
She called solitary confinement a “drastic and punitive designation, one that should be used only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time to serve the penal purposes for which it is designed.”
Reforms include time limits in solitary for various offenses, better training of guards, alternative programs to isolation and more opportunities for inmates in solitary to have time there reduced.
The class-action settlement, first announced in December, was the culmination of a 2011 case brought by an inmate against the state. He said he was unconstitutionally subjected to solitary confinement for three years after certain legal documents in his cell were deemed improper. Under the deal, he would face no more than 30 days in isolation for the same offense.
The New York Civil Liberties Union sued over solitary confinement the same year.
The reforms in New York state come amid a nationwide reassessment of the value and harm caused by subjecting inmates to 23 hours each day alone in a 6-by-10-foot cell.
“Today we begin the process of reversing decades of abuse of an inhumane punishment that has robbed countless incarcerated men and women of their basic dignity,” said Taylor Pendergrass, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top lawyer, Alphonso David, said Cuomo had purposefully instructed his staff to negotiate changes to solitary rather than litigate the case in an effort to make prison “more humane, safe and modern.”
“I believe this is a national model,” he said.
Asked about the finalized deal, a spokesman for the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association referred questions to a December statement from the union calling it “simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers” working dangerous jobs.
The state has about 4,000 inmates among 60,000 inmates in 54 prisons in solitary at any time. Between 80,000 and 100,000 state prisoners nationwide are serving their time in solitary, according to federal figures. The population grew 42 percent between 1995 and 2005.
Scheindlin cited literature saying inmates in solitary exhibit symptoms including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, lack of impulse control, severe and chronic depression, appetite and weight loss, heart palpitations, sleep problems and depressed brain function.
Scheindlin said she received 57 objections to the settlement from prisoners requesting money damages, more information or expressing disappointment that additional prison problem areas were not addressed.
She said the deal does not foreclose prisoners from seeking damages individually. She urged the state to consider prisoners’ complaints about issues including inadequate cameras in areas where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, food quality and cold cells.
Prisoners also had requested better mental health treatment, greater access to religious services and reforms to protect inmates from physical and sexual abuse and from unjust disciplinary techniques.