Changing Solitary Confinement As We Know It

Morrison & Foerster Helps Secure Historic Settlement in New York State

12/23/2015

MoFo News Item

After nearly two and a half years of negotiation, sweeping changes are coming to New York’s solitary confinement policies, following a final settlement agreement in the class action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer.

A legal team, including pro bono lawyers from Morrison & Foerster and the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Alexander Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, negotiated the agreement with top officials from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office and the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The final settlement aims to achieve three goals: 

  • decreasing the use of solitary confinement;
  • reducing sentence lengths in solitary, and
  • changing the conditions in solitary.

“To their credit, New York officials recognized the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system and came to the table with an appetite for reform,” said Jennifer K. Brown, Morrison & Foerster’s senior pro bono counsel. “Our firm was honored to play a part in the negotiations that led to this historic pact, and will be vigilant with our co-counsel in monitoring the implementation and impact of this agreement.”

Filed in 2012, the lawsuit challenged the New York State prison system’s overuse of solitary confinement. One of the most extreme forms of punishment in the United States, solitary confinement is linked to trauma, higher rates of recidivism, and a reduction in public safety. The plaintiffs contended that New York prisons vastly overused solitary to punish inmates for minor infractions, many of which were nonviolent.

The final settlement, which takes into account an interim agreement from February 2014, will be implemented over the course of three years. Its provisions include:

  • making large numbers of disciplinary violations ineligible for punishment in solitary;
  • requiring disciplinary hearing officers to consider an array of other punishments before imposing solitary;
  • setting clear, offense-specific guidelines that limit the length of solitary sentences;
  • diverting appropriate individuals to rehabilitative programming units to address root causes of disciplinary violations such as substance abuse;
  • creating a step-down program so prisoners in long-term solitary develop skills to return to congregate living with less likelihood of new discipline problems;
  • increasing the availability of reading and educational materials and allowing some phone calls for those still in solitary;
  • abolishing the "loaf," an often indigestible mixture of ground up foods baked together and served as further punishment to people already in solitary;
  • instituting automatic time cuts and earned time cuts so inmates can shorten their time in solitary; and
  • implementing training designed to change prison culture by giving guards the tools to de-escalate confrontations with prisoners.

A two-year monitoring period will follow the implementation. Over the course of the entire five years, Morrison & Foerster, working with the NYCLU and Professor Reinert, will monitor compliance to ensure that the promise of meaningful solitary confinement reform is kept.

Once the agreement is fully implemented, more than 1,100 inmates who today would go to solitary will instead be kept out altogether or placed in alternative units with less isolating and more rehabilitative conditions. The settlement is expected to further reduce solitary confinement numbers by prohibiting its arbitrary use as a form of punishment.

To learn more about our historic challenge to solitary confinement in New York, watch our video “Challenging Solitary Confinement” on YouTube.

The full settlement agreement and related information are available on the NYCLU website: http://www.nyclu.org/news/historic-settlement-overhauls-solitary-confinement-new-york.

The MoFo team included New York associates Daniel Matza-Brown and Adam Hunt, of counsel Kayvan Sadeghi, senior pro bono counsel Jennifer K. Brown, and partner David Fioccola.

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