Sweeping Changes to Solitary Confinement Practices.

 

I read recently that the state of New York is making sweeping changes to solitary confinement practices in the state´s prison system.

Apparently, these changes are the result of a lawsuit filed by critics of the solitary confinement system in place.  Critics have said that thousands of inmates, including pregnant and mentally ill inmates, are held for months and even years in isolation; often for minor infractions committed against prison rules.

New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published a report in 2012 which demonstrates that several thousand men and women are often held in special isolation units for decades at a time. The inmates are locked for periods of 23 hours a day alone in their cells on a daily basis.  These inmates are isolated from all human contact, even during periods of exercise. According to the group´s executive director, many inmates who need medical care and counseling are instead kept in solitary cells— “including young people, including people who are developmentally disabled and pregnant women.”

As a result of the lawsuit by the NYCLU, negotiations began between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, reform advocates and state corrections officials, even though the lawsuit was still progressing through the court system. The deal struck between the parties will end use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable inmates as well as set strict limits on the length of time an inmate can be locked away.

Furthermore, the agreement calls for corrections officials to develop strict new guidelines over the next two years regarding the use of solitary confinement as a punishment except for the most serious infractions.

We trust that New York will become a model for the nation with regard to the use of solitary confinement and that more sweeping reforms to the prison system can be expected across state lines.  In New Orleans, a Federal Consent Decree with the Department of Justice has forced Orleans Parish Prison to undergo comprehensive changes. Thankfully, Sherriff Marlin N. Gusman has brought about much needed improvements to our parish jail.  In Angola´s State Penitentiary death row, a lawsuit by inmates has provoked a movement towards better living conditions for inmates that had been previously living in scorching hot cells during Louisiana´s blistering summers. Federal Judge Jackson ordered Angola prison officials to find a way to maintain a cooler environment in the cell blocks. We trust that changes to these three prisons as well as others across the county will deliver better living conditions for all inmates.

 Our nation has chosen incarceration of law breakers as the way with which punishment is doled out to offenders.  But as I have often said, how we treat our prisoners often says more about us as a society that about the prisoners we incarcerate. We are society that has recognized time and time again that we believe in civil rights for all.  Therefore, we must be careful to respect and protect the rights of inmates as carefully as we seek to protect the rest of society.  It is after all the right thing to do.

 

I am Attorney Martin E. Regan, Jr. and these are my personal thoughts…