CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT: NEW YORK PRISONS VIOLATE RESTRICTIONS ON PROLONGED SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York today filed a class action lawsuit in state supreme court against New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) for illegally subjecting people to prolonged solitary confinement in violation of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), passed in 2021. Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of punishment used in the United States outside of the death penalty and causes severe trauma, while also being linked to higher rates of recidivism and a reduction in public safety. Following decades of advocacy from the NYCLU, partner organizations, survivors of solitary confinement and their families, New York was the first state to codify the United Nations Mandela Rules into law, which restrict the use of solitary confinement to exceptional circumstances.
HALT prohibits segregated confinement—solitary confinement in excess of 17 hours per day—exceeding 15 days under any circumstances, and places strict limits on solitary confinement exceeding three consecutive days, or six days in any 30-day period. Yet DOCCS is holding individuals in segregation beyond the fifteen-day maximum for a wide range of behavior that does not pose imminent risk to the facility’s security. A recent study by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent organization that monitors prison conditions, found “numerous departures from basic adherence” to HALT, in some cases resulting in individuals being placed in solitary confinement for up to six times longer than the law allows.
The lawsuit names plaintiffs Fuquan Fields and Luis Garcia, representing a class of individuals currently incarcerated in New York who have been illegally subjected to solitary confinement. Fields and Garcia also represent an untold number of class members who will be placed in extended segregation in the future and be subject to the same illegal treatment.
“I’ve been held in solitary confinement before, and it took a very negative toll on my mental health. It’s overwhelming,” said plaintiff Fuquan Fields. “I don’t meet the HALT criteria to be sent back there, yet DOCCS has sentenced me to another 120 days in the box.”
“I was sentenced to 730 days in solitary confinement. I have so much time in there that sometimes it feels like I’m never going to get out,” said plaintiff Luis Garcia. “Under the HALT Act, DOCCS shouldn’t be treating me this way. I want DOCCS to stop acting like it is above the law.”
Solitary confinement that lasts more than 15 consecutive days is recognized by the United Nations and various human rights organizations as torture. In 2016, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care issued guidance to correctional health officials explaining that long-term solitary is “inhumane, degrading treatment, and harmful to an individual’s health.” Even short-term stays can lead to permanent psychological damage and suicidal ideation. While prolonged solitary is harmful to everyone who experiences it, it is especially dangerous for certain groups, including those 21 or younger and 55 or older, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and people with mental illness.
“Solitary confinement has inflicted enduring harm on generations of incarcerated New Yorkers and remains the gravest humanitarian crisis in our state’s prisons today,” said Antony Gemmell, Director of Detention Litigation at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “In enacting HALT, the Legislature took decisive steps to confront that harmful legacy, speaking with unmistakable clarity about the importance of curbing solitary confinement in New York prisons. It’s time for DOCCS to listen.”
For decades, advocates have fought New York state’s reliance on the harsh punishment of solitary confinement. In 2015, the NYCLU secured a landmark settlement to overhaul solitary confinement in New York, resulting from a 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Annucci, which challenged the policies and practices governing solitary confinement in New York State prisons. In 2014, PLS reached a ground-breaking settlement in Cookhorne v. Fischer mandating, among other things, that a juvenile’s age must be considered when imposing solitary on 16- and 17-year-olds and requiring written justification of any solitary confinement imposition for juveniles. The NYCLU’s 2012 report Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York’s Prisons, showed that state prisons doled out thousands of sentences of extreme isolation every year, with some serving terms of years or even decades in solitary. And in 2007, PLS and its partners settled Disability Advocates, Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health and Department of Correctional Services, which provided relief to all incarcerated people with serious mental illness who were subjected to any form of isolated confinement.
“The enactment of legislation to curb the overuse of solitary confinement, known as the HALT Act, was the result of a decades-long effort by human rights advocates and reformers. It is now the law, but honoring its letter and spirit awaits action by those charged with its implementation,” said Karen Murtagh, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. “The law left in place the administrative tools needed to protect both the ‘keepers and kept’ behind prison walls. An inept and porous rollout of these reform measures certainly does not justify a rollback of these hard-fought reforms. This litigation seeks one thing and one thing only: enactment of the HALT law as written.”
“The New York Legislature spoke loudly and clearly about the harms of solitary and disciplinary confinement when it passed the HALT Act. DOCCS must comply with the HALT Act. It must follow the law,” said of-counsel Alexis Karteron, Director, Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic.
In addition to Gemmell, NYCLU counsel on the case includes deputy legal director Molly Biklen, legal fellows Ify Chikezie and Courtney Colwell, as well as paralegal Alanis McAlmont. PLSNY counsel includes special litigation attorney Andrew Stecker, senior supervising attorney Jim Bogin, senior staff attorney Matt McGowan, and staff attorneys Hallie Mitnick and Elise Czuchna.
You can find materials on the case here: https://www.nyclu.org/en/cases/nyclu-plsny-v-doccs