Earlier this year, I experienced the satisfaction of being in court when U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin approved a landmark settlement that overhauls the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons. I was proud to be part of the team of lawyers who negotiated this historic agreement.
Thousands of inmates in New York state prisons are put in extreme isolation every year. When we filed a class action lawsuit seeking reform in early 2013, the average time in isolation was 150 days — five to 10 times longer than experts say is the maximum period that can be tolerated before causing potentially irreparable damage. These traumas, which are well documented, include depression, hallucinations, violent mood swings, and in many cases, long-lasting mental impairment.
A United Nations report concluded that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days amounts to torture and should be prohibited.
The case was settled after nearly three years of negotiations with New York State officials from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the Governor’s Office, and the Attorney General’s Office.
MoFo represented the plaintiffs — three individual prisoners representing a class of all inmates in state prison – along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and Professor Alexander Reinert of the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.
We succeeded in getting New York officials to recognize the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system. They came to the table with an appetite for reform and a willingness to do the hard work of achieving it, and now we are working together to ensure that the settlement is carried out as planned.
When fully implemented, the settlement will reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement in New York prisons by at least 25 percent and limit the length of stay to three months in most cases. Up to 1,100 inmates will avoid isolation altogether or be housed in alternative units that allow greater human contact such as monthly phone calls and group recreation — and improve the chances of rehabilitation.
One of the plaintiffs was Tonja Fenton, who received three solitary sentences for non-violent conduct. At the settlement announcement, she said: “I hope that New York can finally begin to find its way out of the box.”