On April 18, 2011, a prisoner formerly incarcerated at the New York State Green Haven Correctional Facility (GHCF) filed this pro se
lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the GHCF, the New York State Department of Correctional Services, and the Queens County District Attorney's Office. Bringing this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff sought compensatory and punitive damages as well as declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the 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 alleged 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, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin granted the defendants' motion to dismiss all claims against them. On May 2, 2012, the Court allowed the Eighth Amendment claim regarding SHU confinement to proceed, rejecting all other claims. Judge Scheindlin held that a prisoner in the SHU for two years for this disciplinary offense might well constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
On June 26, 2012, Judge Scheindlin 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. Judge Scheindlin noted that the plaintiff's "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." (Judge Scheindlin also accepted the plaintiff's amended complaint; it incorporated the Court's May 2 rulings and waived any challenge that would affect the length of his confinement.)
On August 23, 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union (assisted by students from the NYU Civil Rights Clinic) filed an appearance to represent the plaintiff. 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 alleged 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.'" The complaint claimed that the conditions in isolation are physically and mentally damaging and violated the Eighth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
On February 19, 2014, the parties agreed to a stipulated stay of the litigation, during which the parties would work to reform the New York segregation system. The remedy for violation of the stipulation is vacating the stay and proceeding with the litigation. The reforms included:
• An alternative to SHU sanctions for prisoners under the age of 18;
• A presumption against SHU sanctions for pregnant prisoners;
• Alternatives to SHU sanctions for prisoners with significant intellectual disabilities (entitled "Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation") which included several hours per day of out-of-cell group programming;
• Central office oversight of SHU confinement;
• New guidelines, policies, and training for confinement sanctions in prison disciplinary hearings; and
• Immediately increasing outdoor exercise time at several facilities, and providing headphones and "in-cell study packets" at others.
On December 16, 2015, the plaintiffs notified Judge Scheindlin that a final settlement agreement had been reached. The settlement provided for (1) a reduction in the frequency and duration of SHU sentences, (2) improvements to the conditions of SHU confinement, and (3) mechanisms for implementation and enforcement of the agreed-upon measures over a five-year period. The settlement agreement also required the defendnats to pay $1.1 million for attorneys' fees and costs, including $129,900 as incentive awards for the class representatives, and up to $100,00 a year over the course of the settlement. The parties jointly moved for a conditional class certification in order to move forward for a fairness hearing for final approval of the settlement. Judge Scheindlin issued an order on December 23 providing preliminary approval of the settlement agreement and certifying the class.
On February 19, 2016, the case caption was amended to change the named defendant to Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
On June 15, 2015, the district court began receiving letters from class members voicing their concerns. After receiving a total of 164 letters, on March 21, 2016, the plaintiffs filed a final motion for settlement approval. On March 31, 2016, Judge Scheindlin approved the motion, finding the settlement agreement fair, reasonable, and adequate, and also noting that the majority of the letters submitted by class members were in support of the settlement agreement. As such, Judge Scheindlin also ordered this case closed. - 02/19/2014
John He - 03/31/2016