The New York Civil Liberties Union Thursday filed a federal lawsuit challenging New York prison official’s system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement.
The group released a report in October calling New York’s use of solitary confinement “arbitrary” and “inhumane.”
The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiff, Leroy Peoples, spent 780 days locked in cell the size of an elevator with another prisoner for 24 hours a day. He was being punished for non-violent misbehavior.
The lawsuit alleges that New York’s guidelines allow for the prison disciplinary process to be inappropriately influenced by discriminatory intent. Black New Yorkers are disproportionally represented in the extreme isolation population as compared to the state’s general prison population, and blacks are punished more harshly with isolation sentences than prisoners of other racial groups for similar misbehavior.
“New York’s prison authorities permit the use extreme isolation—one of the harshest punishments one human can impose on another—as a disciplinary tool of first resort for violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “This cruel and arbitrary punishment endangers prisoners and corrections officials alike, and it decreases safety in our prisons and communities.”
Officials from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision have said that assigning solitary confinement, which the department refers to as disciplinary segregation, is not an action taken lightly.
“When there are individuals in our system, in our custody, who commit offenses inside our facilities, the reason why they are moved to disciplinary segregation is for the safety and security for the entire facility,” Peter Cutler, department spokesman, said recently. “And that’s our paramount responsibility—to maintain the safety and security for everyone.”
Cutler said Thursday that the department does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit argues that Peoples’ punishment was grossly disproportionate and was a result of unconstitutional policies that similarly affect thousands of individuals incarcerated in New York prisons.
From 2007 to 2011, New York issued over 68,000 sentences to extreme isolation as punishment for violating prison rules, the group reported in October. On any given day, approximately 4,500 people—about 8 percent of the entire New York State prison population—are locked down for 23 hours a day in isolation cells. Sixteen percent of isolation sentences from 2007 to 2011 were for assault or weapons.
The lawsuit contains new information obtained through freedom of information request that provides more detail about the types of non-violent infractions that have resulted in isolation, the NYCLU said in a news release.
For example, from 2007 to 2011, prison officials imposed 302 isolation sentences for “smoking in an undesignated area,” 135 isolation sentences for “wasting food,” 114 isolation sentences for “littering” and 234 isolation sentences for “untidy cell or person.”
The lawsuit also challenges New York’s official policy of “double-celling,” the practice of placing two inmates inside a single isolation cell. It alleges New York officials have continued the practice of double-celling despite evidence that it is known to result in violence between double-celled individuals.
In 2009, Peoples, who is black, was sentenced to 36 months in isolation at Upstate Correctional Facility, which double cells prisoners, for a non-violent offense involving the purposeful filing of false legal documents. He served 26 months at Upstate. His sentence was later reduced by 10 months for good behavior.
“Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog,” Peoples said. “The ceaseless torment of being locked up every day in a tiny cell with another person is hard to describe. I hope this lawsuit results in change so that other human beings don’t have to endure the suffering that I lived through.”
Read the full complaint here: