Last week the state of New York changed the way it uses solitary confinement in its prisons. This change was prompted by a federal law suit claiming that some of the most vulnerable prisoners were being subjected to extended stays in solitary confinement.
“In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union published a report showing that thousands of men and women are being held in these special isolation units — some for more than a decade.
Those inmates are locked in their cells alone, 23 hours a day. Even during exercise periods, they rarely have human contact.
Donna Lieberman, the group’s executive director, says many inmates who need medical care and counseling are instead kept in solitary — “including young people, including people who are developmentally disabled, and pregnant women,” Lieberman says.
The NYCLU sued, and while the case moved through federal court, negotiations began between Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state corrections officials and reform advocates.
The deal announced this week will end the use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable inmates.
Lieberman says it will also mean strict limits on the length of time an inmate can be locked away.
“These changes, while just a first step, are significant,” she says. “They’re historic. We’re the largest system in the country to preclude solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners. That’s huge.””
People of color are over represented in prison isolation units, so changes like those announced in New York could have a larger impact in communities of color when prisoners are released.
Last summer prisoners in California held a hunger strike to protest the conditions of solitary confinement, and last week the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections wrote an op/ed saying that he’s ready to consider reforms after spending just 20 hours in solitary confinement to better understand what prisoners go through. The announced policy change in New York may prompt additional action in other states.