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NY state prison system breaks law by sending disabled inmates to solitary: lawsuit

The New York Daily News - 5/9/2024

The New York State prison system continues to send inmates with mental illness disabilities to solitary confinement, despite a 2022 state law banning them from doing so, according to a new class action lawsuit.

The suit, filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court, is accusing the state of placing inmates with myriad physical and mental disabilities in solitary, often keeping them in their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.

That violates the 2022 HALT act, which prohibits the use of solitary for people with disabilities for any amount of time. But according to the lawsuit, the state prison system and Office of Mental Health are using their own definition of what constitutes a disability to skirt the law.

“DOCCS and OMH have unlawfully refused to recognize a number of disabilities as exempt under HALT, leading to even more incarcerated New Yorkers languishing in solitary confinement to their own detriment,” Legal Aid’s Stefen Short said Wednesday.

Legal Aid, Disability Rights Advocates, and Winston & Strawn LLP filed the suit Wednesday.

One inmate, Stephanie Pena, spent a total of 70 days in the segregated housing unit, or SHU, at Albion Correctional Facility spread out over several occasions, despite her PTSD and antisocial personality disorder, according to the suit. In one instance, she was sent to the SHU on allegations she resisted being forcibly taken from her cell during a suicide attempt, the suit alleges.

Pena says in the suit that solitary confinement is “destroying” her, and has caused drastic mood swings, flashbacks and nightmares.

Another detainee, Maurice Anthony, who is legally blind, has been held in a diversion unit at Wende Correctional Facility since January, alone in a cell for about 20 hours a day, according to the lawsuit. Anthony has described the experience like being “in a trunk” or a “casket” where “you can’t get out,” according to the suit.

A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment on the suit, saying that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Agency officials said that Acting Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III has several policy changes since taking the job last June to better follow the HALT act, including a closer review of whether inmates sent to the SHU should be there.

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