New York has agreed to reforms that would reduce the use of solitary confinement and ban solitary confinement for prisoners under 18 years old, according to court documents [opinion, PDF] released on Wednesday. Under the agreement, the state will immediately halt the use of solitary confinement for youth, pregnant inmates, and developmentally disabled and intellectually challenged prisoners. The state will also adopt sentencing guidelines for the first time and set maximum limits on the length of isolation. The reforms come in response to a New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) [advocacy website] lawsuit [complaint, PDF] filed against the state in December 2012, which alleged that the state was "arbitrarily sentencing tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals to months and years of extreme isolation and solitary confinement for alleged infractions that often present no threat to prison safety." The suit claimed that state solitary confinement policies gave corrections officers wide discretion in imposing isolation and punish a disproportionate number of black prisoners. The suit also alleges that the isolation causes physiological and psychological damage. The findings from the NYCLU's report "Boxed In" [report, materials] provided the basis for the lawsuit. Lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents, stated that the agreement "is an important step toward dignity and decency." In response to the reforms, the NYCLU has agreed to suspend its lawsuit against the state.
The legality of solitary confinement [JURIST news archive] has been an ongoing debate in the US, with many calling for comprehensive prison reform [JURIST podcast]. In October UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez urged [JURIST report] the US to immediately end the solitary confinement imposed in 1972 on Albert Woodfox [AI backgrounder]. In September Mendez stated in a report to the UN General Assembly that governments should ban solitary confinement [JURIST report] for juveniles and prisoners with mental disabilities. Mendez told the assembly members that governments should impose solitary confinement only in exceptional circumstances and for short periods of time. In June at least 400 inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in California initiated a hunger strike [JURIST report] in protest of solitary confinement. Inmates of Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit (SHU), a long-term isolation ward where one-third of the prison's population is held in solitary confinement, are the instigators of the strike, and most of the strikers from other prisons are inmates in solitary confinement. In January 2011 the Washington Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that holding death row inmates in solitary confinement indefinitely is not an impermissible increase [JURIST report] in the severity of punishment. In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed suit against the US government, challenging the establishment of isolated cells within federal prisons that were allegedly created in violation of federal law.