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The New York Civil Liberties Union says isolation cells like this one are used far too often. Photo source: NYCLU
The New York Civil Liberties Union says isolation cells like this one are used far too often. Photo source: NYCLU

Lawsuit targets solitary confinement at Malone prison

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The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, challenging the use of isolation cells in New York state prisons.

The suit follows a report NYCLU issued in October that claimed state officials were placing far too many inmates in solitary confinement.

The suit could have big ramifications for corrections facilities here in the North Country.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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NYCLU issued its report on isolation practices in state prisons in early October.
NYCLU issued its report on isolation practices in state prisons in early October.
Back in October, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report claiming that on any given day roughly eight percent of inmates in New York state prisons are in solitary confinement. (Read the full report here)

That means they spend 23 hours each day locked in a cell, either alone or with one other inmate.

Many of those isolation cells are located here in the North Country – with roughly a thousand special lock-up units at Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone.  

In its suit, filed on Wednesday, NYCLU singles out the case of a single inmate, Leroy Peoples, who spent 780 days in solitary at Upstate Correctional for what the lawsuit describes as non-violent and non-threatening "misbehavior"

NYCLU director Donna Liebermann called the punishment "cruel and arbitrary".

Brian Fischer, commissioner of New York's prison system, says a review of solitary confinement policies is underway. Photo: New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
Brian Fischer, commissioner of New York's prison system, says a review of solitary confinement policies is underway. Photo: New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision
The suit claims that inmates like Peoples are placed in solitary without proper review to determine the appropriateness of the sentence or the physical and psychological risks isolation might pose.

The suit also claims that black inmates – Peoples is African American — are placed in isolation more often and for longer periods.  

"Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog," Peoples said, in a NYCLU statement.

"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."

When NYCLU issued its report in October, state officials said they had already begun their own "intensive review" of solitary confinement procedures.

At the time, Department of Corrections commissioner Brian Fischer issued a statement arguing that placing inmates in solitary cells is sometimes necessary "to protect those in our custody as well as our employees."

In their suit, however, the NYCLU claims that fewer than one in five solitary confinement cases involve inmates who posed a risk to guards or other prisoners.

The group is asking the Federal court to require New York state to adopt new policies and procedures, as well as staff training and supervision, designed to make the use of isolation cells far less frequent.

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