Category Archives: Uncategorized

MA State Senators are listening to us

State senators and the ACLU held their first Commonwealth Conversation on Feb. 28. in Canton. Thanks to Peter Panov of Needham for this report.

The Commonwealth Conversations South Shore Town Hall on Tuesday, February 28th showed widespread interest in justice and corrections systems reform. This Town Hall was for Senators Keenan, O’Connor, Ross, Rush, and Timilty’s districts, however half of the Senate’s 40 members were present.

They explained these meetings represent a portion of setting the Senate’s agenda for the 2017-2018 legislative session. Among several of the frequently repeated themes such as the Safe Communities Act and the planned Weymouth gas compressor station was justice and corrections system reform in the Commonwealth.

Six of the 54 statements (by about 50 citizens attending the meeting) addressed Criminal Justice reform, from: ending mass incarceration in general and mandatory sentencing; to mandatory minimums, solitary confinement, and reducing recidivism; to unnecessary imprisonment, rehabilitation, and the example of a traffic fine becoming a license suspension becoming imprisonment.

From the ACLU Freedom Agenda (which includes “Smart Justice” — shifting from incarceration to rehabilitation) reflecting the speaker’s values; to 60% of our jailed being held pre-trial & 70 percent of those held because they can’t afford bail; to raising the felony larceny threshold, with the remark that Texas’s felony larceny at $2500 required to constitute a felony versus a misdemeanor, is TEN times ours, but Texans are not ten times better!

This is a clear message that moving Massachusetts away from mass incarceration is a priority for many Commonweawlth citizens, who are passionate about some several solutions we need to the many aspects of the problem.

More ACLU/Senator meetings are scheduled in March and April: March 7 in the Southeast; March 14 in Central; March 21 in Northeast; March 28 in Western; April 4 in Metrowest; and April 11 in Northshore.

End the criminalization of poverty

We have the opportunity to end the criminalization of poverty and “Fine Time” curing the 2017-18 session of the Massachusetts State Legislature.  Sen. William Brownsberger has introduced a comprehensive bill to prevent people from imprisonment because of inability to pay fines.

Read more in this opinion column published in USA Today.

Suspending driver’s licenses creates a vicious cycle: Column

Some states are recognizing the injustice of linking to the ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees.

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Though our nation feels more divided than ever, there is a common concern that cuts across party lines and entrenched ideological silos: a pervasive sense that we have failed to give all Americans an equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

Despite our best efforts, government policies too often create obstacles that prevent Americans from climbing the ladder of opportunity. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the criminal justice system.

It is universally understood that the justice system should be fair — and that those who violate the law should be held accountable, pay their dues, and move on. But too often, justice comes only for those who can afford it. And all of us pay the price.

Consider the case of Damian Stinnie. A product of Virginia’s foster care system, Damian graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average and went right to work, making close to minimum wage. Then he lost his job. In the four months it took for him to find a new position — another low-paying job in retail — he received four traffic citations. The total owed on the resulting fines and four sets of court costs was just over $1,000.

Making only about $300 a week, Damian could not pay his fines and fees in 30 days. The court gave him no other payment options. Instead, with no notice and no inquiry into his ability to pay, his driver’s license was automatically suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As a result, Damian was caught between two untenable choices: risking more fines and possible jail time if caught driving with a suspended license, or losing his job because he didn’t have a way to get to work. Months later, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he then had to choose between breaking the law and making his doctors’ appointments.

Second, license suspension for conduct other than drunken driving makes us less safe by diverting resources from critical public safety concerns to arresting, prosecuting, adjudicating and sometimes incarcerating defendants for license suspension cases.

How can we stop this troubling and growing trend?

 

This type of commonsense criminal justice reform has strong bipartisan support. Even in a divided nation, we can agree that our criminal justice system must dispense justice fairly and equally, and that policies disproportionately punishing the poorest among us have no place in our courts.

Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime. Joanna Weiss is director of Criminal Justice Reform, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To submit a letter, comment or column, check our submission guidelines.

Incarceration in the U.S. costs more than $1 trillion a year, Washington University study claims

The economic toll of incarceration in the U.S. tops $1 trillion, and more than half of that falls on the families and communities of the people incarcerated, according to a recent study by Washington University researchers.

“For every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another 10 dollars of other types of costs to families, children and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget,” said Michael McLaughlin, the doctoral student and certified public accountant who led the study. “Incarceration doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The study’s authors claim to be the first to assign an actual dollar amount to the societal costs of incarceration, not just the governmental costs of running corrections systems, which many experts estimate to be $80 billion.

 That $80 billion number “considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs,” the researchers wrote.

The study was spearheaded by McLaughlin and Carrie Pettus-Davis, who as co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative advocates for the shrinking of the U.S. mass incarceration system, which is the largest in the world. Pettus-Davis is also director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, which like the initiative is based at Washington U.

Some of the societal costs of incarceration include the wages people no longer earn while imprisoned — $70.5 billion — and the amount of lifetime earnings they will likely lose out on — $230 billion — after they get out because of employment restrictions and discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, the study says.

The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than people who were not incarcerated, according to the study, and researchers estimated the cost of their shortened lives to be $62.6 billion.

As for the communities where incarcerated people live, the researchers believe the biggest cost — $285.8 billion — is the criminogenic effect of prison, or the theory that prison reinforces criminal behaviors that carry over into a community.

Incarcerated people are 18 to 25 times more likely than those who have never been jailed to commit a crime in the future, Pettus-Davis says.

Jail and prison removes a person’s social ties to a community, so it’ll become harder for them to get a job, and they’ll be more likely to turn toward crime to fill that economic need, McLaughlin says. Because incarceration is so frequent in some communities, the social deterrent to not commit a crime may be weakened in those neighborhoods, McLaughlin added.

 “We’re getting to a point in the U.S., in society, that we’ve incarcerated so many people that it’s kind of become a common thing in some communities,” McLaughlin said.

Children with incarcerated parents are also five times more likely to go to prison themselves and receive less education and wages, a total estimated cost of $166.6 billion.

Other costs include the increased likelihood of divorce, $17.7 billion, decreased property values, $11 billion and adverse health, $10.2 billion.

The study’s authors acknowledge that correlation does not always equal causation and that these costs may have already been likely to happen in the community independent of incarceration because of other associated phenomena, like poverty. The authors were careful to select research that controlled for factors like poverty and isolated the impact of incarceration as much as possible.

They also admit the study does not analyze the benefits of incarceration, but argue that “there is a point where the marginal cost of incarcerating an additional individual exceeds the marginal benefit.”

“If anything, we believe our study underestimates the true cost of incarceration,” McLaughlin added, because there are some costs like poor emotional health that can’t be quantified by a dollar amount.

Kristen Taketa is the night general assignment reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

By ALYSIA SANTO

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. TheConnecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.

Bills Related To Increasing Penalties for Interfering with Police

In response to the Dallas massacre, our Massachusetts state legislature has introduced the following bills.

1. HB4440: An act relative to assault and battery on a police officer

Amends various GLs to punish whoever commits an assault and battery upon a

police officer and causes the officer serious bodily injury, by 1 to 10 years in state

prison or 1 to 2½ years in the house of correction, with a minimum mandatory 1

year to serve, and a fine between $500 and $10,000; and provides that a judge

may consider that a defendant charged with this offense is dangerous enough to

justify setting bail on the defendant or ordering such defendant's release, but with

Lead sponsor: Governor Charlie Baker (R)

Co-sponsors: None

Status: In Judiciary Committee. Hearing held 7/13/16. 4 testimonies in

opposition, 6 testimonies in support.

2. HB4466: An act protecting police officers

Section 13D of Chapter 265, as appearing in the 2014 Official Edition, is

hereby amended by adding at the end thereof the following new paragraph:

Whoever commits an assault or an assault and battery upon a law enforcement

officer, when such an officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, that

results in bodily injury shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for

not more than 5 years or in the house of correction for not more than 2 1/2 years,

or by a fine of not more than $5,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Second or subsequent assaults upon a law enforcement officer, when such an

officer is engaged in the performance of their duties, or assaults and battery,

resulting in bodily injury shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000,

and imprisonment for not less than 1 year in a house of correction or more than

10 years in state prison.

Lead sponsor: Rep. Paul Frost (R-Auburn)

Co-sponsors: Rep. Ashe, Brian (D); Rep. Berthiaume Jr., Donald (R); Rep.

Boldyga, Nicholas (R); Rep. Campanale, Kate (R); Rep. Cantwell, James (D);

Rep. DeCoste, David (R); Rep. Diehl, Geoff (R); Rep. Dooley, Shawn (R); Rep.

Durant, Peter (R); Rep. Dwyer, James (D); Rep. Ferguson, Kimberly (R);Rep.

Fiola, Carole (D); Rep. Gordon, Kenneth (D); Rep. Gregoire, Danielle (D); Rep.

Haddad, Patricia (D); Rep. Hill, Bradford (R); Rep. Howitt, Steven (R); Rep. Hunt,

Randy (R); Rep. Kane, Hannah (R); Rep. Kelcourse, James (R); Rep. Kuros,

Kevin (R); Rep. Lombardo, Marc (R); Rep. McKenna, Joseph (R); Rep.

McMurtry, Paul (D); Rep. Miceli, James (D); Rep. Muratore, Mathew (R); Rep.

Orrall, Keiko (R); Rep. Poirier, Elizabeth (R);Rep. Puppolo, Jr., Angelo (D); Rep.

Rogers, John (D); Rep. Smola, Todd (R); Rep. Vieira, David (R); Rep. Vincent,

RoseLee (D); Rep. Whelan, Timothy (R); Rep. Wong, Donald (R); Rep. Zlotnik,

The inhumanity of solitary

U.S. faith leaders push for prison reform of solitary confinement

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015. Photo: CNS/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media

The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.

The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.

The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.

Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.

In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.

“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.

“It was dehumanising.”

Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”

It was an environment where the men in neighbouring cells screamed, acted out their frustration in anger and cut themselves. And there was suicide.

About halfway through his sentence Perez began to realise “my mother didn’t give birth to me to sit in a jail cell”. He had a daughter who was born two days before he was arrested and he had barely seen her.

Perez enrolled in college classes while incarcerated, studying criminal justice and is set to graduate from St Francis College next year. His studies and change of heart helped prepare him for his first job when he was released from prison two and a half years ago. Today, he is a safe re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project in New York City helping the newly released adjust to life outside of prison.

He also is a vocal advocate for solitary confinement reform.

Perez’s stay in solitary was relatively short. Some incarcerated people have spent 30 years or more in isolation.

Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statementResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.

Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.

The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organisations calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.

“For us as people of faith, we really see this effort as a profoundly moral effort, that we would deny any person access to community, access to restorative justice, to, what I would say as a Methodist minister, access to redemption and a belief in God’s ability give us all a second and third and 23rd chance,” Rev Downton told Catholic News Service.

“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a documentary on solitary confinement titled Breaking Down the Box. The organisation also has built a replica 1.8-metre-by-2.7-metre cell that it displays at programs.

In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones”.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to limit solitary confinement have been introduced in several states in response to concerns raised by once incarcerated people and psychologists. They have met with mixed results.

Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilising Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.

In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice. In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.

The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany told CNS that the state’s bishops have worked on restorative justice issues for more than a decade. He said their concern always has been for the dignity of the inmates.

He also welcomed a settlement agreement reached in December in a lawsuit over incarceration practices in New York prisons. The agreement calls for a step-down unit to help inmates reintegrate into the general prison population, a substance abuse treatment program, a community re-entry program for people being released, incentivising good behaviour, ending the use of a restrictive diet as punishment, and disciplinary guidelines to end the use of arbitrary sanctions.

Cross country, the California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.

“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.

“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals’,” the bishop said.

Over the years, the committee has been instrumental in gaining reforms in California solitary confinement practices. It played a major role in ending a two-month hunger strike in 2013 that involved nearly 10 per cent of California’s inmate population over solitary confinement policies, particularly at Pelican Bay State Prison.

“When the men were not eating at Pelican Bay, certainly we advocated for them and against what was happening to them there,” Bishop Garcia said.

“I think the SHU is improved, especially at Pelican Bay, from what I’ve been hearing,” he added.

Perez is pleased that reform campaigns are gaining attention. The reform efforts are not meant to prevent prison officials from doing their job, he explained, but to ensure that administrators remember that incarcerated people must make amends for their wrong-doing and not to be further punished in isolation for even minimal rules violations.

“We’re not saying you can’t not hold people accountable,” Perez said. “But you don’t have to treat them inhumanely.”

New York State Agrees to Overhaul Solitary Confinement in Prisons

By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ and MICHAEL WINERIP DEC. 16, 2015
Courtesy of the New York Times
New York has agreed to a major overhaul in the way solitary confinement is administered in the state’s prisons, with the goal of significantly reducing the number of inmates held in isolation, cutting the maximum length of stay and improving their living conditions.
The five­ year, $62 million agreement, announced on Wednesday, is the result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union over the treatment of inmates in solitary confinement in the prisons. For 23 hours a day, 4,000 inmates are locked in concrete 6­by­10 ­foot cells, sometimes for years, with little if any human contact, no access to rehabilitative programs and a diet that can be restricted to a foul­tasting brick of bread and potatoes known at the prisons as “the loaf.”
The changes are expected to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement by at least a quarter and usher in a range of reforms, including limiting the time served to three months in most cases and providing the prisoners with certain privileges, like monthly phone calls and group recreation.
“This is the end hopefully of an era where people are just thrown into the box for an unlimited amount of time on the whim of a corrections officer,” said Taylor Pendergrass, the civil liberties union’s lead counsel on the case. “This will not be the end of the road for solitary confinement reform, but we really think it’s a watershed moment.”
The legal settlement caps three years of negotiations between the civil liberties union and the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and comes at a time of intense scrutiny of the state prison system.
In June, two murderers escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., setting off a nationwide manhunt that cost millions of dollars. But it also exposed serious dysfunction within the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision that has been documented in a series of articles by The New York Times and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.
While states like Washington and Colorado have gone further in curbing the use of solitary confinement, both the civil liberties union and the governor’s office say the New York settlement is historic, given the size of the corrections system — it encompasses 54 prisons that hold nearly 60,000 inmates — and how much there was to do after decades of neglect.
“I think this agreement is radical and groundbreaking in ways that we couldn’t anticipate 10 years ago,” Alphonso B. David, the governor’s chief counsel, said. Mr. David said Mr. Cuomo saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to make New York prisons a model for the country.
Even though both sides say they are dedicated to a sweeping reform effort, there are still significant obstacles. Almost two years ago, the state agreed to an interim settlement that eliminated the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women, most developmentally disabled inmates and any prisoner under age 18.
And yet during that time, the number of inmates in solitary confinement has increased. Officials attributed the rise in part to the escape in June, which prompted a crackdown throughout the prison system. More than 50 people have been in solitary confinement for longer than five years. At the same time, the average length of stay in isolation has gone down, to 190 days as of December from 225 days last year.
Another major question is whether the corrections officers’ union, which has great power in the prisons, will go along with the settlement. After the interim settlement was adopted in 2014, the union filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, challenging many of the new policies. Officials with the corrections officers’ union said they had not been included in the negotiations nor had they yet reviewed the details of the settlement.
“Our state’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” the union said in a written statement.
The settlement agreement, which also involved the law firm Morrison & Foerster and Alex Reinert, a professor from Cardozo Law School, must still be approved by the judge in the case, Shira A. Scheindlin, of Federal District Court in Manhattan. The agreement establishes a maximum sentence of three months for most disciplinary violations, except assaults, and 30 days for almost any prisoner who has committed a nonviolent infraction for the first time.
Isolation will no longer be imposed for first­ time violations for drug use or possession, which in the past accounted for as much as one­ fifth of the solitary population. The number of infractions punishable by solitary confinement will be cut in half, and violations that once gave corrections officers wide discretion to impose long sentences, such as “disobeying orders,” will now have a maximum of 30 days.
Though conditions will improve under the settlement, privileges for the inmates in isolation will still be highly restricted. For the first time, according to the civil liberties union, inmates will be able to make telephone calls, but only once every 30 days for those in long­ term isolation.
The corrections department will also begin a pilot program to provide offline tablet computers to inmates, but there are 30 for the entire state system. In the past, inmates in solitary confinement were given one hour of recreation a day, which they spent alone in a chain-­linked cage. Under the settlement, they will be allowed to leave their cells and spend their recreation time with others on the solitary block for two hours, three times a week. They will also have greater access to reading materials and be allowed to hang curtains in front of their toilets for privacy. And the settlement prohibits prison guards from using food as a punishment.
“I think it’s symbolic, but I think it will have a significant impact throughout the prison system,” Mr. David said. “We will eliminate the loaf.” Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the civil liberties union, described it as “notorious,” “indigestible” and “worse than not eating at all.”
Section IX, Article D of the agreement says the corrections department has three months to phase out the loaf and replace it with “a nutritious, calorie sufficient  and palatable alternative meal composed of regular food.” A report by the civil liberties union called “Boxed In,” which was published in connection with the lawsuit, cited studies that found half of the inmates in solitary confinement were seriously mentally ill; solitary inmates accounted for 34 percent of all suicides in the state prison population; and those in isolation were disproportionately African ­American.
Tonja Fenton, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who wrote her original legal complaint in pencil from her cell, spent three years in solitary confinement. “I was locked up in a cage and forgotten,” Ms. Fenton, who has since been released, said during a conference call on Wednesday. “You don’t hear any other voices, you speak out loud just to hear yourself. You forget what it’s like to be human.”
According to the report, each year about 2,000 inmates are released directly from solitary confinement into the community without receiving any transitional support. The settlement agreement aims to change that by creating “step­down” programs, which will provide mental health counseling, job training, education and drug treatment at several prisons including Southport Correctional Facility, near New York’s border with Pennsylvania, which houses only inmates in solitary confinement.
A monitor chosen by the civil liberties union will be able to inspect the prisons to ensure compliance, and the corrections department will be required to publish quarterly status reports to its website. The civil liberties union praised the Cuomo administration for its “extraordinary effort” to work out an agreement.
“No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time,” said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And if it complies with all the terms within the time frame, New York will undergo an unprecedented transformation.” Correction: December 16, 2015

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