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New York Backs Off Controversial Punishment For Juveniles


The state of New York is taking a step toward a more humane prison system. Prison officials reached a landmark agreement today to limit the use of solitary confinement. The deal prohibits the use of extreme isolation to discipline under-age prisoners. It also offers new protections for pregnant women and for the disabled.

With us to talk about the deal is NPR's Carrie Johnson. Hi.


SIEGEL: New York is now the largest prison system in the U.S. to take some of these steps. How did the deal come about?

JOHNSON: So, the ACLU in New York filed a big class action lawsuit that highlighted some really large numbers. For instance, nearly 4,000 inmates in New York are locked up in solitary for as many as 22 or 23 hours at a time - getting fed through a slot in the cell, very little exercise time or fresh air or sunshine. And they're often sent into those conditions, Robert, for minor infractions like refusing to follow orders from corrections officers. Here's Donna Lieberman. She's executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

DONNA LIEBERMAN: This settlement represents a historic reform of the system of solitary confinement in New York state and an important step towards, we hope, ultimately eliminating the use of solitary confinement in our prison system.

SIEGEL: Now, Carrie, it's not going to do that. It's not going to eliminate the use of solitary. What's going to change for inmates in New York because of the deal?

JOHNSON: Well, for starters, for kids under age 18, there's now going to be a ban on using solitary confinement as a way to punish them. For pregnant women, prison officials are going to disfavor or lean against shoving them in solitary confinement except under extreme conditions. And, finally, for inmates with special needs and disabilities, corrections officials are supposed to now look for alternatives for putting them into what inmates call the box. So, shorter stays there and quicker transitions out.

The reason, Robert, this is important is because there's a lot of research now about the physical and psychological harm of solitary confinement. It can make people sick, make them more likely to attempt suicide, and make them more dangerous when they finally get out of prison.

SIEGEL: But will ending solitary confinement be difficult for authorities? It's common in New York and corrections officers often say that it's a disciplinary tool they like to have it in the toolbox.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it's quite common in New York, and it's even more common in other states around the country, where sometimes inmates are kept there for years or even a decade or more. In New York, already, unions and correctional officers are saying they want that kind of tool in their toolbox. But the acting commissioner for prisons in the state says limiting the use of segregation will make prisons there more humane and fair and progressive.

The settlement, it's important to note, imposes some new requirements on the state to file reports and have oversight. So if the state officials and the corrections guards don't do what they say they're going to do under this settlement, the ACLU says it's willing to restart this litigation and make sure New York lives up to its end of the bargain.

SIEGEL: And the term you just used, segregation, would be another term for putting people into solitary.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Prolonged isolation or segregation.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.