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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Class of NY Inmates Aim at Solitary Confinement

MANHATTAN (CN) - An inmate who spent three years in solitary for "unauthorized legal materials and filings" amended his civil rights claims to represent a class.

Leroy Peoples, a convicted rapist, sued New York prisons commissioner Brian Fischer, two of Fischer's subordinates, and officials from the Green Haven and Upstate prisons, in the Southern District of New York.

Two other New York prisoners joined Peoples on Wednesday as plaintiffs to his December 2012 complaint.

Tonja Fenton, 39, defrauded Queens apartment hunters with a Craigslist post; and DeWayne Richardson, 40, was convicted of second degree assault.

They are all represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which recently stepped up its campaign to end long-term solitary confinement as "cruel and unusual punishment."

Amended for the third time Friday, the new complaint liberally quotes the NYCLU's report "Boxed In," which was released late last year as an overview of extended isolation in New York state prisons.

"Between 2007 and 2011 alone, New York imposed nearly 70,000 extreme isolation sentences," the complaint states. "On any given day in New York prisons, approximately 4,300 people, constituting approximately 8% of the New York prison population, are locked down 23 hours a day in tiny concrete cells. A disproportionate number of individuals sent to New York's isolation cells are black, and many suffer from serious mental illness."

New York prisons refer to these cells as Special Housing Units, or SHUs, which are intended to punish misbehavior in prison, rather than the crimes that led to an inmate's incarceration.

Peoples, Fenton and Richardson each contend that they endured solitary confinement for nonviolent prison offenses. Peoples and Richardson spent three years in the SHU, and Fenton served two years in isolation, according to the complaint.

Describing his confinement as "torturous," Peoples claims that "his emotions became capricious, uncontrollable, and extreme. He had thoughts of harming himself and committing suicide. He was certain he would lose his marriage. He suffered from anxiety, panic, apathy, paranoia, lethargy, uncontrollable rage, and depression."

Fenton, a mother of two, accrued solitary confinement time for allegedly helping another prisoner access hair care products and sneakers, reporting that a male guard sexual assaulted her, and pursuing food tampering claims against corrections officers.

Though corrections officials deemed Fenton's assault allegations unsubstantiated, her lawyers say "sexual misconduct by Albion corrections staff has been well-documented in the last decade in news reports, trial judgments against corrections staff, and reports by prison monitors."

Albion staff allegedly discouraged Fenton from filing the report, and then found her guilty of "false statements," according to the complaint.

"For Ms. Fenton, SHU was hell," the complaint states. "She struggled to maintain her sanity in extreme conditions of deprivation. Prior to her incarceration, Ms. Fenton had no mental health history. Once placed in SHU, doctors diagnosed her with depression and prescribed psychotropic drugs."

Richardson, who also has two children, claims that solitary confinement aggravated his pre-existing mental illness, and that he was sent there for possessing documents related to the Uniform Commercial Code.

Corrections officials consider such reading material to be contraband, the ACLU says.

Department of Corrections officials were not immediately available to explain why the keep that prohibition.

The class seeks an injunction declaring that lengthy SHU sentences violate Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punish, and that hearings to protect them from such terms violate Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

Peoples, Fenton and Richardson also seek damages for all similarly situated New York prison inmates.

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