NEW YORK (AP) — Children and pregnant inmates will no longer be subjected to solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons after a judge on Wednesday approved a deal expected to lead to further changes over the next two years in the use of extreme isolation as a punishment in state prisons.
Civil liberties attorneys and state officials praised the changes after U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin signed the agreement, which came after a class action lawsuit challenging the state's use of solitary confinement was filed in 2011 by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The head of a union for correctional officers criticized the agreement.
Besides the ban on solitary confinement for some inmates, the agreement calls for maximum limits on isolation sentence lengths to be set for the first time as part of the establishment of sentencing guidelines statewide.
Department of Corrections and Community Supervision acting commissioner Anthony J. Annucci said the deal "will result in historic and appropriate changes in the use and conditions of special housing units, while preserving the health and safety of our staff and inmate population."
He said it will bar the use of solitary confinement for disciplining prisoners under age 18 while including a presumption against use of the tactic for pregnant inmates. It creates an alternative program for those who are developmentally disabled, he added.
NYCLU senior staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass said the measures were only the start of a two-year reassessment that will involve nationally recognized experts.
An NYCLU 2012 study concluded that the state subjected thousands or prisoners to an average of 150 days of extreme isolation each year, while some served years or decades in solitary.
"It's a very important step, both for New York but also nationally in terms of prison systems thinking very critically about how they use isolation and the harms that it causes," Pendergrass said.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association Inc., said in a statement that it was "simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis."
Pendergrass said New York state, like many others, had increased its use of solitary confinement in recent decades with a tough-on-crime philosophy and a reliance on punishment as a way to manage prison systems.
But he said many experts have concluded the isolation often worsens behavioral problems.
"When you put somebody in a concrete box for 24 hours a day, you really aren't doing anything to modify where the misbehavior begins," Pendergrass said.
He said there are about 3,800 inmates in solitary, with about 55,000 inmates housed overall. He said California has about 4,000 inmates in solitary out of a prison population that is more than double the size of New York's.
The NYCLU said the agreement means New York state becomes the largest prison system in the United States to ban the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure against prisoners under age 18.
Lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples called the agreement "an important step toward dignity and decency." The NYCLU said Peoples served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents.
Associated Press writers George M. Walsh and Josefa Velasquez in Albany contributed to this report.