A Law Hasn’t Fixed Solitary Confinement in New York. Can a Lawsuit?

A new legal challenge takes aim at the New York prison department for locking hundreds of people up in solitary over offenses that should be exempt.

Chris Gelardi   ·   April 7, 2023
The lawsuit exposes previously unreported DOCCS policies that effectively instruct officers to violate solitary confinement law. | Maia Hibbett / New York Focus

SHACKLED TO a restraint chair on suicide watch in January, Fuquan Fields needed to use the bathroom. He told the staff at Fishkill Correctional Facility, he said, but they ignored him. About two hours later, he urinated on the floor.

According to a prison report, he threatened an officer and threw “wet looking sugar packets” at them. An officer later found Fields guilty of an “assault on staff,” an “unhygienic act,” and “lewd conduct.”

He was sentenced to six months in solitary confinement.

Now Fields is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit that seeks to hold New York’s prison department accountable for flouting the state’s landmark solitary confinement law. The New York Civil Liberties Union, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, and Rutgers Law School’s Constitutional Rights Clinic filed the suit against the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on Wednesday, alleging that the prison agency has been sending people to prolonged solitary confinement on illegal terms. Many of the allegations were brought to light by a series of New York Focus investigations, which found that DOCCS has routinely subjected legally exempt people to solitary.

The lawsuit exposes previously unreported DOCCS policies that redefine which prison rule violations make a person eligible for solitary confinement, effectively instructing officers to violate the law.

It’s the first major legal challenge to DOCCS’s resistance to the reform law, known as the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act and enacted in March 2022. In addition to New York Focus’s reports, oversight and advocacy organizations have documented the prison system’s violations — but Governor Kathy Hochul, who appoints DOCCS leadership, has been silent on the issue. While lawmakers have sent letters to and questioned DOCCS over its obstinance, the state legislature hasn’t yet held hearings on HALT or introduced follow-up legislation to force the department’s hand.

“This litigation seeks one thing and one thing only,” Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said in a statement. “Enactment of the HALT law as written.”

Over 11 months, DOCCS handed down more than 2,700 years’ worth of solitary confinement sentences.

UNDER HALT, prisons and jails aren’t allowed to sentence someone to more than three days of solitary confinement unless they’re found guilty of a limited set of infractions, including rioting, extortion, attempted escape, possession of a deadly weapon, and sexual assault. Additionally, the offense must be “so heinous or destructive” that the person “creates a significant risk of imminent serious physical injury” to others.

A New York Focus analysis in October found that over six months, state prisons sent people to prolonged isolation almost 1,200 times — nearly one in five solitary sentences — for infractions that definitively did not fit within those parameters. Another 2,900 prolonged isolation sentences were only plausibly legal.

READ MORE: Lesser Infractions Aren’t Supposed to Land You in Solitary Confinement. They Do Anyway.

According to the class action suit, those violations are embedded in DOCCS’s internal policies. A DOCCS manual asserts that all top-level infractions “qualify” as eligible for solitary under HALT. Known as “Tier III,” the classification encompasses a wide range of misbehavior, including alcohol possession, being in the wrong part of the prison at the wrong time, having sex, and partaking in a demonstration. Under HALT, none of those are solitary-eligible offenses.

In February, for example, prisons sent people to isolation for “unhygienic” acts, drug possession, “lewd conduct,” being a member of a gang, and disobeying unspecified orders, according to prison department data published as a requirement of HALT.

The policy isn’t the only one DOCCS has enacted to illegally send people to solitary confinement. As New York Focus first reported, the prison department has misinterpreted a HALT provision barring facilities from sending anyone with a mental or physical disability to isolation. Lawmakers and oversight organizations have repeatedly told DOCCS that anyone with a disability or on its mental health caseload is exempt from isolation, but prisons continue to send dozens of people with mental illnesses to solitary every month.

International bodies have long considered prolonged solitary confinement a form of torture, pointing to the mental anguish it causes.

READ MORE: Prisons Are Illegally Throwing People With Disabilities Into Solitary Confinement

Wednesday’s lawsuit also alleges that DOCCS has been ignoring another HALT requirement: to record “in writing” why an infraction was serious enough to warrant solitary, “based on specific objective criteria.”

“DOCCS appears to have determined on a blanket basis that all misconduct charged as a Tier III offense” is eligible for isolation, “irrespective of the nature of the particular act,” the suit says.

In response to a request for comment, a DOCCS spokesperson said that the department “has not been served and does not comment on pending litigation.”

I’ve been held in solitary confinement before, and it took a very negative toll on my mental health. It’s overwhelming.

Fuquan Fields

In the case of Fields, the plaintiff, the officer never recorded why his infractions were “heinous” enough to create “risk of imminent serious physical injury” to anyone other than himself.

“I’ve been held in solitary confinement before, and it took a very negative toll on my mental health,” Fields said in a statement. “It’s overwhelming.”

SINCE HALT’S ENACTMENT, DOCCS has complained of a lack of space in its longer-term isolation units. Prisons haven’t been able to comply with limits the law places on the use of certain solitary confinement cells, the department has argued, because there are too many people they need to isolate.

Yet they continue sentencing people to long stays in isolation — including for lesser offenses — clogging up the units.

As of late February, DOCCS had handed down more than 9,700 isolation sentences since HALT went into effect, averaging 102 days per punishment, according to department data. Around 400 of those sentences were for a year or more of isolation. Luis Garcia, another plaintiff in the class action suit, received two full years for allegedly throwing an “unknown brown feces smelling liquid,” hitting two officers with it.

“I have so much time in there that sometimes it feels like I’m never going to get out,” Garcia said in a statement.

Between April 2022 and late February, DOCCS handed down more than 2,700 years’ worth of solitary confinement sentences.

In a report last month, the Correctional Association of New York, an independent prison oversight organization, found that, in the first six months after HALT went into effect, DOCCS sent people to solitary at a faster rate than it did pre-HALT. Pointing to New York Focus’s analysis of discipline data, the organization implied that DOCCS has failed to implement one of the law’s core principles: “a shift away from the use of disciplinary sanctions to deescalation, incentives, and other alternative interventions.”

I have so much time in there that sometimes it feels like I’m never going to get out.

Luis Garcia

There’s a stark racial divide in DOCCS’s overuse of solitary confinement. The incarcerated population in DOCCS facilities is just shy of half Black. But in the first 11 months of HALT’s enactment, the average monthly population of the prisons’ isolation units averaged 64 percent Black.

The prison agency continues to violate other aspects of HALT with near impunity. As the Correctional Association of New York confirmed in last month’s report, DOCCS is failing to adhere to HALT’s requirements for prisons’ long-term alternate isolation units. And on orders from Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci, prisons are shackling all people in the alternate units to desks for hours at a time, despite HALT’s prohibition against such restraints without an “individual” safety assessment.

The prisons are also still sending people with mental illnesses and other disabilities to solitary. And they’re still holding people in traditional solitary well beyond HALT’s maximum of 15 days.

“DOCCS shouldn’t be treating me this way,” Garcia said. “I want DOCCS to stop acting like it is above the law.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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