The New York Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court charging New York State prison officials with overseeing policies that lead to the “arbitrary and unjustified use” of solitary confinement for prison inmates.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Leroy Peoples, spent more than two years in “extreme isolation” as punishment for non-violent infraction of prison rules that the NYCLU says never threatened the safety of other inmates or prison staff.
His crime: filing false legal documents in 2009. His sentence: 36 months in isolation, which was reduced to 26 months for good behavior.
During his lengthy stay in the hole, Peoples spent 24 hours a day in
cell with another inmate. The cell, the NYCLU says, is the “size of an
Peoples’ 2009 stint in the hole wasn’t his first time
in isolation — in 2005, he was sentenced to six months in isolation.
His crime: possessing unauthorized multi-vitamins. The same vitamins are sold in the prison’s commissary.
“Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a
chained dog,” Peoples says. “The ceaseless torment of being locked
up every day in a tiny cell with another person is hard to describe. I
hope this lawsuit results in change so that other human beings don’t
have to endure the suffering that I lived through.”
But Peoples is
just one of thousands of prison inmates who are thrown into extreme
isolation for non-violent infractions every year.
Earlier this year, we published a series of letters written by inmates in extreme isolation for arguably petty offenses.
The letters are pretty heartbreaking, and the sentences of extreme
isolation, the NYCLU argues, are disproportionate to the infractions
many of the inmates committed. .
According to the NYCLU, from 2007
to 2011, the Department of Corrections issued more than 68,000 solitary
confinement sentences for various rule infractions. Of those 68,000
sentences, only 16 percent were for assault or weapons offenses.
For example, between 2007 and 2011,
the DOC issued 302 isolation sentences for “smoking in an undesignated
area,” 135 for “wasting food,” 114 for “littering,” and 234 for keeping
an “untidy cell or person.”
“New York’s prison authorities
permit the use extreme isolation – one of the harshest punishments one
human can impose on another – as a disciplinary tool of first resort for
violating almost any prison rule, no matter how minor,” NYCLU Executive
Director Donna Lieberman says. “This cruel and arbitrary punishment
endangers prisoners and corrections officials alike, and it decreases
safety in our prisons and communities.”
The Department of Corrections declined comment, noting that it “doesn’t comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”