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NY Prison Isolation Suit Settled With Reform Promise

MANHATTAN (CN) - On the heels of a major initiative to educate New York inmates, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday settled a federal challenge to the widespread use of solitary confinement.

The announcement comes three days after Cuomo guaranteed funding for college classes within New York State correctional centers, a move that the New York Times praised as a "Bold Step on Prison Education."

Peoples v. Fischer, the newly settled case brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, contested the practice of solitary confinement.

The terms of the 12-page stipulation mandate that, for the first time, New York adopt sentencing guidelines and maximum limits on solitary-confinement cases. The Department of Corrections will also give isolation prisoners more recreational hours and access to educational materials. There are additional restrictions favoring alternatives to isolation for juvenile, pregnant and special-needs inmates.

NYCLU director Donna Lieberman praised Cuomo's "vision."

"New York state has done the right thing by committing to comprehensive reform of the way it uses extreme isolation, a harmful and inhumane practice that has for years been used as a punishment of first resort in New York's prisons," Lieberman said in a statement. "By entering into this agreement, the Cuomo administration has shown that it has the vision to transform New York into a national leader in the movement toward alternatives to solitary confinement, and has prioritized the safety of prisoners, prison staff and New York's communities."

The December 2012 federal complaint on behalf of inmate Leroy Peoples named as defendants New York prisons commissioner Brian Fischer, two of Fischer's subordinates, and officials from the Green Haven and Upstate prisons.

Though a convicted rapist, Peoples said it was a nonviolent prison infraction that landed him in a so-called "Special Housing Unit," or SHU, for three years. SHUs aim to punish inmate misbehavior, rather than the crimes that led to a person's incarceration.

"This agreement is an important step toward dignity and decency," Peoples said through the NYCLU. "I thank the governor for taking this seriously and hearing us out."

Two other New York prisoners joined Peoples as plaintiffs in March 2013, as the NYCLU stepped up its campaign to end long-term solitary confinement as "cruel and unusual punishment."

The amended complaint liberally quoted the NYCLU's report "Boxed In," 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."

The NYCLU said that the average SHU sentence is 150 days, a term they claim is "five to 10 times longer than experts say is the maximum tolerable span."

SHUs are intended to punish misbehavior in prison, rather than the crimes that led to an inmate's incarceration.

Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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