Solitary Confinement, New York, Incarcerated With Disabilities

New York Federal Agencies Sued For Placing Disabled Inmates In Solitary

Lawsuit claims disabled inmates have been kept In solitary despite law for humane alternatives to long-term solitary confinement.

A team of disability advocates and law firms have filed a lawsuit against the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) on behalf of incarcerated inmates with disabilities.

The Legal Aid Society, Disability Rights Advocates, and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a class action lawsuit on May 8 against the agencies for participating in violations of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT), which decreased the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails throughout the state, according to a press release shared with BLACK ENTERPRISE

The legislation, which went into effect in March 2022, bans prison and jail officials from placing inmates with disabilities in solitary confinement on the grounds that individuals with disabilities are prone to grave medical and psychological consequences that are irreversible. However, advocates allege DOCCS and OMH have continuously placed inmates with disabilities in solitary confinement, defined by the act as “any form of cell confinement…for more than 17 hours a day.”

The suit tells the story of inmates, including Maurice Anthony, a legally blind man incarcerated in the Empire State since 2014. Anthony spent close to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, including holidays, according to Pix 11. He compared confinement at Wende Correctional Facility to being in a “casket” or “a trunk.” The class action claims conditions resulted in Anthony “experiencing claustrophobia, blackouts, hopelessness, and extreme frustration.” 

Andy Gneco and Stephanie Peña have experienced similar circumstances. Both Afro-Latinx inmates have been held in solitary confinement by DOCCS despite hearing and mental health challenges. Gneco was subjected to solitary confinement for approximately 22-24 hours per day — including in the Special Housing Unit — during his time behind bars at Auburn and Clinton Correctional Facilities. 

Isolation and sensory deprivation, in addition to forced isolation from Gneco’s daughter, led to depression and anxiety.

Peña, who has been incarcerated by DOCCS since 2022, has mental health disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and antisocial personality disorder. Officers have placed her in solitary confinement on several occasions, which she said is “destroying her,” causing her to experience severe mood swings and PTSD-related symptoms, including nightmares and flashbacks.

Notes from the law insinuate solitary confinement can become counterproductive. Other states that have adopted this ideology to make more “humane” jail practices have decreased violence and increased jail safety. Josh Rosenthal, supervising attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, said it’s time for New York to get on board. “It is long past time for the State to end the use of solitary confinement for people with disabilities,” Rosenthal said. 

“Words are not enough, and DOCCS and OMH must comply with state law and stop this vicious practice once and for all.”  

While the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said it had no comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson’s claim underscored that Acting Commissioner Daniel F. Martuscello III made policy changes in June 2023 to comply with HALT, including the addition of stricter review processes for segregated confinement.

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