- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

New York state has agreed to make major changes to its solitary confinement policies in order to resolve a 2012 class-action suit brought on behalf of inmates who called the isolation practice inhumane.

The state said in court documents released Wednesday that it will revamp its solitary confinement procedures, cutting the number of inmates held in isolation by a quarter and committing $62 million toward reform.

If approved in court, the agreement would settle a suit filed against the state three years ago by the New York Civil Liberties Union after prisoners began pushing for changes.

“Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” Leroy Peoples, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said in a statement.

Peoples, who spent 780 straight days in solitary confinement for nonviolent behavior, said that “a major milestone has been accomplished today” in getting the state to reform its rules.

“New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons,” added Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU.

“Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State,” she continued, adding that “No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time.”

Under the terms of the agreement, New York prisons would stop using solitary confinement to punish inmates accused of minor violations, and nearly all first-time nonviolent offenders will be prohibited from being put in solitary for more than a month.

Inmates kept in isolation will be allowed expanded privileges, including access to reading materials and telephones, and be provided new food options as well, while more than 20,000 corrections officers will undergo new training to learn better how to defuse and prevent jailhouse incidents.

The settlement also calls for more than 1,100 inmates currently kept in isolation to be moved to less secluded units and allocates $62 million toward various efforts, including turning old solitary units into new facilities.

“This package of reforms will result in a safer correctional system, as well as a fairer and more humane response for inmates who engage in misconduct,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

Roughly 4,000 of the nearly 60,000 inmates incarcerated across New York state’s 54 prisons are currently held in solitary, many for as long as 23 hours a day.

Michael Powers, the president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, responded to the settlement in a statement on Monday saying it was “simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis.”

“Any policy changes must prioritize the security of everyone who works and resides in these institutions,” Mr. Powers said.

Changes to the state’s solitary confinement policies could begin as soon as two months from now and are expected to be implemented in full within three years’ time.

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