MANHATTAN (CN) - New York prisons will release more than a quarter of its population in solitary confinement, some 1,100 people, under the final settlement filed Wednesday of a federal class action over the practice human-rights advocates view as torture.
The 78-page settlement in the case of Peoples v. Fischer beefs up the protections that an earlier agreement provided prisoners in February 2014.
Leroy Peoples brought the underlying class action lawsuit three years after spending 780 consecutive days in solitary confinement for allegedly filing false legal documents.
Peoples celebrated today's settlement announcement as a "major milestone."
"Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn't want anyone to experience," Peoples said in a statement.
Attorneys for Peoples with the New York Civil Liberties Union hailed the development as "historic," though the settlement still allows prisons to isolate inmates for periods of time that United Nations torture investigator Juan Mendez defined as "cruel, inhuman or degrading" punishment.
The proposed resolution of Peoples' lawsuit does not abolish the practice of solitary confinement, and a federal judge must approve the deal before it can take effect.
It does, however, significantly improve on several features of the agreement Peoples and the state reach on Feb. 19, 2014, which sought to limit solitary-confinement stints and offer more protections for vulnerable populations such as juvenile, pregnant and special-needs inmates.
More than five times the length of that "interim" agreement, the new settlement commits New York state to invest $62 million in providing alternatives to isolation, training for prison staff and rehabilitative programming.
Previously, New York prisons allowed for stints in special housing units (SHUs) to discipline 87 rule violations.
First-time offenders will no longer be eligible for solitary confinement for 42 of those violations, and the 23 infractions considered to be "petty violations" will no longer be punishable by isolation, according to the 72-page agreement.
The Department of Corrections must also provide de-escalation training to more than 20,000 staffers.
Prisons can no longer starve prisoners with inedible food known as the "loaf," either.
Except for attempted escapes and assaults, the maximum solitary sentence will be three months for a first-time violation. A nonviolent violation will be limited to 30 days for a first offense.
This is higher than the 15-day solitary stint that U.N. investigator Mendez found should be the heaviest sentence, in a report that he issued four years ago.
Although the NYCLU contends that the agreement "establishes a robust monitoring regime to ensure compliance" with the settlement, the agreement itself describes any oversight as voluntary.
"No designated expert will be a monitor, but will advise and consult with the parties as provided in this agreement," the agreement states.
Still, the NYCLU's executive director Donna Lieberman said reform on this scale has never been seen before in the United States.
"No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time," she sai in a statement. "Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State."
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