New York proposes sweeping solitary confinement changes. Why now?

Use of 'the box' has become highly controversial in recent years, with several states reconsidering the extent to which prison guards should be employing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure.

Mike Groll/AP
Tama Bell, whose son served time in New York prisons, speaks during an assembly oversight hearing on the state prison system on Dec. 2, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. Several corrections experts and mothers of inmates say New York needs far better oversight of its prison system, citing cases where mentally ill inmates were abused, improperly isolated in solitary confinement and one was killed by guards.

New York state has agreed to implement sweeping changes to its prison system and the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for prisoners.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on Wednesday announced an end to a long legal battle that includes plans to scale down the "over-reliance" on solitary confinement in the state's sprawling prison system. 

Of the almost 60,000 prisoners in 54 prisons throughout New York, about 4,000 are currently serving their time in solitary confinement, often referred to as "the box." Many of whom were placed in solitary as punishment for for minor or nonviolent offenses. Once approved by a judge, 1,100 of those prisoners will be moved into therapeutic housing units over the next three years. 

The state plans to allocate $62 million toward reforms, which will include everything from converting solitary confinement units into spaces with group learning rooms and outdoor spaces to nearly halving the number of rules that when broken, can send inmates to isolation. Today, there are 87 such offenses that can land one-time offenders in the box, including drug use and possession.

Under the new guidelines, stints in solitary will be limited to three months for all but a few first-time rule violations, like escape attempts and assault.

The agreement also adds some humanity to inmates' experience in solitary like access to reading materials and telephone calls. The "loaf," a dense block of vegetables made famous in "Orange Is the New Black," is also banned under a new rule against "inedible food." The changes are part of a settlement to a lawsuit brought against the state several years ago by the NYCLU, which sued New York over 23-hour confinement rule violations, arguing the practice was cruel and psychologically damaging.

"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," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement.

Elsewhere in the country, convicts are experiencing an end to similar practices, with courts at many levels reconsidering solitary confinement. As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

Signs of [a] shift are mounting, with recent reforms to solitary confinement practices in states ranging from Maine to Illinois to New York. In addition, earlier this year, a Louisiana judge released Albert Woodfox from prison after he spent 40 years in solitary, making national headlines. And Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing vote on the United States Supreme Court, raised the issue of solitary confinement in concurring with a ruling on a different subject earlier this year.

“Research still confirms what this Court suggested over a century ago: Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote, referencing the 1890 court decision In re Medley.

While the proposed reforms are being lauded by civil rights activists and those who have experienced solitary in New York's prisons, successful implementation will depend on support from the influential union representing prison guards, which was not directly involved in the legal negotiations, and has long been a proponent of solitary as a necessary technique for controlling prison blocks.

New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association President Michael Powers said in a statement that although his union was still reviewing the wording of the settlement, "it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis."

Under the proposed agreement, more than 20,000 corrections officers will receive training for de-escalating and preventing incidents that might bring an inmate to solitary confinement.

The lead plaintiff in the NYCLU's case, Leroy Peoples, described his experience of two years in isolation as "mental torture that I wouldn't want anyone to experience," in a statement. He added, "A major milestone has been accomplished today."

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