New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today significant reforms of the way solitary confinement is used for inmates in the state's prison system.
Under the new rules, there will be limits on the amount of time that prisoners can be sent to solitary—known as Special Housing Units or SHU—and limits on what kinds of offenses can get a prisoner sent to SHU. The deal is part of a settlement reached in a class action lawsuit brought against the state by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
“Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” Leroy Peoples, the lead plaintiff the NYCLU was representing, said in a statement. Peoples served more than two years consecutively in isolation for what was a non-violent infraction: prison officials said he filed false legal documents.
There are around 4,000 people being held in solitary confinement (for 23 hours a day) in New York prisons right now, according to The Associated Press. "The agreement will result in the end of traditional solitary confinement for more than 1,100 people—one-quarter of the current solitary population—who will either be placed in alternative units or provided with less isolating, more rehabilitative conditions," the NYCLU said in their statement. A greater emphasis on alternatives to solitary that provide opportunities for rehabilitation is part of the agreement, along with training for prison officers to de-escalate situations before resorting to punishment.
Currently, there are 87 rule violations that can lead to a prisoner being sent to solitary, the NYCLU says. Under the new rules, around half of those violations will not be punishable by solitary if they're a first-time offense, and 23 petty violations of the 87 won't be punishable by solitary. There will also be limits to how long people can be held in solitary: three months for many first-time violations and one month for non-violent first-time offenses. For prisoners like Peoples, this is a life-changing rule.
The effects of widespread use of solitary confinement as punishment have been brought to light in the past few years. "Few social scientists question that isolation can have harmful effects," the New York Times wrote in August. "Research over the last half-century has demonstrated that it can worsen mental illness and produce symptoms even in prisoners who start out psychologically robust."
This move to curb the use of solitary is especially significant in New York: the state is home to one of the country's largest correctional systems, which houses around 60,000 prisoners, according to The Associated Press. The reforms are expected to cost $62 million and will be put in place over the next three years.