NEW YORK -- For years, mental health experts have been increasingly concerned that solitary confinement amounts to torture. For years, they have suggested that the problems it causes -- from cognitive dysfunction to psychosis to suicide -- mean that prisons should rarely or never use it. Now a new lawsuit in New York is putting a spotlight on the practice in a state where it is used frequently and, critics say, arbitrarily.
Leroy Peoples on Thursday filed a federal suit against the state's prison system over its use of solitary confinement, alleging that the practice amounts to "psychological torture." The lawsuit, which is being argued by the New York Civil Liberties Union on Peoples' behalf, has become the latest salvo in a growing national controversy. More than 80,000 prisoners across the country are held in solitary confinement, but mental health experts and even corrections officials are increasingly questioning whether so many people need to be held in the costly "box."
Roughly 4,500 people in New York -- about 8 percent of the system's population -- are in solitary confinement in the state's prisons on any given day. One of them is Peoples, a convicted rapist who was placed in solitary confinement for over two years after being found in possession of unauthorized legal documents.
The NYCLU hopes to use Peoples' treatment as a test case for solitary confinement in New York, which the organization alleges is often used in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.
"We've known for decades if not centuries that solitary confinement is uniquely and severely harmful both psychologically and physically," said Taylor Pendergrass, the lead counsel on the case for the civil liberties organization.
Peoples, Pendergrass said, "is still suffering from long lasting consequences of his time in [solitary] ... he's still extremely withdrawn and anxious, and, I think, socially isolated."
The use of solitary confinement across the nation has soared along with the prison population as a whole. After nearly being ruled unconstitutional in the 19th century, as a violation of the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, solitary has made a major comeback over the past thirty years as tough-on-crime policies have increased.
But politicians and human rights organizations have ratcheted up their criticisms of the practice in recent years. As a result of a 2007 settlement, New York's prisons agreed to provide improved treatment for prisoners with serious mental illness, which can be aggravated by solitary confinement. In June, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) oversaw hearings that probed the use of the practice. And in October, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union called on all US prisons to stop using solitary confinement on child prisoners.
The NYCLU contended in an October report that in New York, solitary is used arbitrarily, often for minor offenses, and disproportionately on black inmates, who make up 49.5 percent of the general prison population but 59 percent of the extreme isolation population. Of the records the NYCLU was able to examine, only 16 percent of solitary sentences stemmed from infractions related to violence, like physical assault or the possession of weapons.
Despite solitary's widely acknowledged harmful side effects, Pendergrass said, "the New York state prison system places almost no meaningful guidelines, restraints or standards either on the use of it as punishment or its conditions."
Peter Cutler, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, declined to respond to the claims about People's treatment, citing a policy against commenting on ongoing litigation.
But he did note that the prison system has convened an internal task force to review its use of solitary confinement practices. He also pointed to an October statement from the commissioner of the department, Brian Fischer, in response to the NYCLU's October report.
"As society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we remove from general population inmates who violate the Department’s code of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities," Fischer said. "The possession of drugs, cell phones and weapons pose a serious threat within this and any other prison system."