On April 18, 2011, a prisoner formerly incarcerated at the New York State Green Haven Correctional Facility filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against state defendants. The pro se plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that Defendants violating his constitutional rights by searching his cell, confiscating legal papers, sentencing him to 3 years in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), and failing to adequately protect him from other inmates.
Specifically, plaintiff brought a Fourth Amendment claim resulting from a pat frisk and subsequent search of his prison cell, an Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment claim resulting from his three-year sentence to SHU confinement, an Eighth Amendment claim regarding his altercation with a fellow inmate, a Fourteenth Amendment due process claim arising in connection with his disciplinary hearing, and a right of access to the courts claim under the First and Sixth Amendments.
On December 1, 2011, the Court (Judge Shira A. Scheindlin) granted the Prosecutor-Defendants' motion to dismiss all claims against them. On May 2, 2012, the Court allowed the Eighth Amendment claim regarding SHU confinement to proceed, although rejecting all the other claims. Putting a prisoner in the SHU for two years for this disciplinary offense might well constitute cruel and unusual punishment, the court held.
On June 26, 2012, the Court granted in part Defendants' motion to reconsider, dismissing all claims against one of the defendants for lack of personal involvement in the alleged conduct. However, Judge Scheindlin elaborated her thinking on the SHU issue, and declined to grant qualified immunity to the remaining defendants at that point. The court held: "His placement in the SHU for such a time period was grossly disproportionate to the non-violent violation that he was found to have committed. He has therefore stated a plausible claim that defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment." (The Court also accepted Plaintiff's amended complaint for filing; it incorporated the Court's May 2 rulings and waived any challenge that would affect the length of his confinement.)
At this point, the New York Civil Liberties Union (assisted by students from the NYU Civil Rights Clinic) entered the case as the plaintiff's counsel, filing an appearance on August 23, 2012. They filed an amended complaint on December 6, 2012. It dealt only with the issue of isolation, but broadened the action, framing it as a challenge to the constitutionality of "New York State's practice of arbitrarily sentencing tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals to months and years of extreme isolation and solitary confinement for alleged infractions that often present no threat to prison safety." The complaint alleges that New York State uses extreme isolation as punishment more than any other prison system in the United States--4,300 prisoners on any given day live in isolation (some for years at a stretch), "imposed as a sanction for offenses as minor as 'untidy cell or person,' 'unfastened long hair,' 'littering,' and 'unreported illness.'" And the conditions in isolation are physically and mentally damaging. This violates the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause, the complaint claims.
On February 19, 2014, the case settled, by entry of a stipulated stay of the litigation, during which the parties will reform the NY segregation system. The only remedy for violation of the stipulation is vacating the stay and proceeding with the litigation. The reforms included are:
A) Alternative to SHU sanctions for prisoners under 18.
B) A presumption against SHU sanctions for pregnant prisoners.
C) Alternatives to SHU sanctions for prisoners with significant intellectual disabilities, entitled "Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation." This will include several hours per day of out-of-cell group programming.
D) Central office oversight of SHU confinement.
E) New guidelines, policies, and training for confinement sanctions in prison disciplinary hearings.
and F) Immediately increasing outdoor exercise time at several facilities, and providing headphones and "in-cell study packets" at others. - 02/19/2014