Judge rejects state prison system’s attempt to dismiss lawsuit over solitary confinement

The class action lawsuit was filed by a group of people incarcerated in state prisons, including one man who was sent to solitary confinement for 120 days after throwing sugar packets and urinating on the floor.

Advocates rally against soitary confinement.

Advocates rally against soitary confinement. HALT Campaign

On Monday, a state court judge rejected the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of people still being locked in solitary- confinement like quarters in New York state prisons.

In 2021, the state Legislature passed the “HALT Solitary Confinement Act,” which attempted to limit use of solitary confinement conditions in state prisons. The law prohibits any form of solitary confinement for any person in custody diagnosed with a serious mental illness and caps the duration of solitary confinement at 15 consecutive days or 20 days within a timeframe of 60 days. It also mandates that anyone directed to be housed in solitary-like settings for more than fifteen days be transferred to a Residential Rehabilitation Unit, which offers greater out-of-cell time and social programming opportunities than traditional solitary housing units.

The HALT Solitary legislation also limits the use of solitary to punishing specific “heinous and destructive” acts allegedly carried out by incarcerated people and requires prison officials to describe in writing exactly what the acts are and why solitary confinement is necessary.

Violating the law

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Prisoners Legal Services claim that DOCCS has not complied with any of these stipulations. In April, they filed a lawsuit against DOCCS on behalf of a group of people held in solitary conditions in DOCCS facilities. DOCCS filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. But on Monday, New York Supreme Court Judge Kevin Bryant rejected that motion and allowed the lawsuit to continue as a class action.

The petitioners argued that DOCCS was not in compliance with HALT as DOCCS has not been rendering case-by-case determinations, nor does DOCCS make findings-of-fact that are set forth in specific, written decisions describing the alleged heinous acts and why people in custody are an unreasonable risk to security in DOCCS facilities. The lawsuit also alleges that people are being placed in solitary-like conditions for hundreds of days on end, defying the law’s 15-day cap. 

Two of the three petitioners named in the original lawsuit were penalized by being sent to mental health observation units for more than 100 days. These observation units sometimes isolate people in their cells for 20 hours each day and limit social programming and access to recreation.

Another petitioner, “Mr Fields,” claimed that after he exposed himself, urinated on his cell floor and threw sugar packets at a correction officer, he was placed in a “Specialized Housing Unit” for four months as a penalty – even though DOCCS never described in writing how peeing on his floor or throwing sugar packets constituted a threat to the security of the facility he was placed in.

The crux of Bryant’s decision revolves around DOCCS’ current practice of confining people to solitary confinement-like units without explaining why they must be kept away from the general population. Bryant wrote that the HALT legislation only allows for the use of restrictive housing assignments when “placement of the individual in general population creates a significant risk of imminent serious physical injury to staff or other incarcerated persons and creates an unreasonable risk to the security of the facility.”

DOCCS had argued that it did not need to describe specific findings of fact each time it placed a person in solitary confinement-like conditions because the underlying facts were “self-evident.” But Bryant rejected this line of reasoning, writing in his decision that DOCCS does “not directly address the allegations that they have adopted a policy that essentially leads to an automatic classification of all Tier III offenses as meeting the criteria for confinement under section 137 of the Corrections Law (the HALT Solitary Act). They also do not dispute that following this policy, they do not render case-by-case determinations, nor do they make findings-of-fact that are set forth in written decisions.”

Bryant also rejected an argument from DOCCS that the petitioners had improperly filed for relief by seeking declaratory judgment rather than filing a special Article 78 proceeding, which has a much stricter statute of limitations. “This Court has considered the arguments presented and agrees with counsel for Petitioner that insofar as Petitioners seek the review of an allegedly continuing policy, a declaratory judgment action is appropriate,” Bryant wrote.

“Solitary confinement is torture”

Senator Julia Salazar, the original sponsor of the HALT Solitary Act, applauded the judge’s decision.

“As the sponsor of the HALT Law, I have been dismayed at the refusal of the Department to fully comply with the clear requirements of the HALT Law,” she told City & State in a statement. “Judge Bryant recognized the seriousness of DOCCS' failure to comply with the HALT Law and soundly rejected departmental arguments to get the case dismissed. It is also significant that the Judge, over the objections of DOCCS, certified this case as a class action.” 

“People behind bars throughout New York can now have hope that they will not be locked in solitary confinement without a legally proper reason and as the result of a fair procedure,” she added. “I extend my appreciation to the lawyers and staff at the NYCLU and Prisoners’ Legal Services for the hard work as well as to the courageous individuals who commenced this lawsuit.”

Advocates for ending solitary confinement also praised the court for finally addressing the state prison systems’ refusal to follow the law.

"Solitary confinement is torture. It is deadly. It worsens safety for everyone,” said Jerome Wright, co-director of the #HALTsolitary campaign. “The New York State legislature and Governor gave prisons and jails a clear mandate by enacting the HALT Solitary Confinement Law. Yet, DOCCS continues to flagrantly violate the law. We commend the brave people inside who brought this lawsuit, along with PLS and the NYCLU, and are glad the class action will now move forward. At the same time, the Governor must immediately step in to ensure all prisons and jails fully and properly implement every aspect of the HALT law. People's lives and our communities are at stake."

Solitary confinement of more than 15 days is considered a form of torture by the United Nations, and it can be deadly in New York state prisons. Records obtained by City & State via the Freedom of Information Law suggest that about a quarter of people who died in state prisons between 2013 and 2022 had been placed in solitary confinement conditions. The records name 1,450 individuals who died in DOCCS custody between January 2013 and December 2022; 31 of those people had their place of death listed as Specialized Housing Units, and another 350 had their place of death partially redacted – a sign that they likely perished while detained in specialized mental health observation units or other forms of restrictive housing akin to solitary confinement.