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New York Just Struck a Deal to Rein in Solitary Confinement in State Prisons

4,000 inmates are currently housed in six-by-ten-foot cells for 23 hours a day. A $62 million settlement and promised reforms should begin to change that.

by River Donaghey
Dec 16 2015, 4:17pm

Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Read: What It's Like to Take LSD in High Security Prison

New York is poised to radically overhaul the current system of solitary confinement in state prisons, according to a settlement announced by Governor Cuomo's administration and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) on Wednesday.

The $62 million deal stemmed from a lawsuit brought by the group against the Empire State over what it said amounted to inhumane and often arbitrary use of solitary Special Housing Units (SHU) on around 4,000 current inmates, as the New York Times reports.

"[The SHU] is, literally, torture," NYCLU's executive director Donna Lieberman told journalists during a recent conference call. Inmates there typically spend 23 hours in a six-by-ten-foot cell.

The reforms will cap the amount of time most prisoners can spend in solitary at three months, depending on the offense. New York State will also begin to allow more frequent group recreation time and provide some phone privileges to SHU inmates. Officials are also required to quit feeding inmates that heinous food loaf the NYCLU calls "physical torture," and says is used as a form of piunishment. Perhaps most important, the number of people confined to what's usually called "the box" or "the hole" is supposed to drop by about a quarter, though it's worth noting that past reforms like barring the box for pregnant women and those under age 18 failed to make a dent in the solitary population. In fact, it's continued to rise in recent years.

"This will not be the end of the road for solitary confinement reform," said Taylor Pendergrass, the NYCLU's lead counsel on the case, "but we really think it's a watershed moment."