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New York Officials Announce Reforms To Solitary Confinement In Prisons

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than a thousand inmates will be released from solitary confinement under a deal made public today in New York. State officials have agreed to reform the use of isolation cells, especially for prisoners who commit minor infractions. But as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the settlement is drawing criticism from prison guards.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: New York has been known for decades as a place where thousands of state inmates spend months, even years, in solitary.

TONJA FENTON: I got lost in that box.

MANN: The box is the tiny prison cell where Tonja Fenton lived in isolation for years after breaking relatively minor prison rules. The former inmate spoke during a teleconference this morning from New York City.

FENTON: Solitary drains you - your speech, your thought. I don't know if I can rebuild, you know, the life I had.

MANN: Fenton sued over her treatment, and the New York Civil Liberties Union bundled her case into a federal class-action lawsuit. They described New York's network of solitary confinement cellblocks as a kind of torture. Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to negotiate, and the deal announced this morning will dramatically reduce the number of infractions that lead to isolation housing. Taylor Pendergrass with the New York Civil Liberties Union says inmates still held in solitary will receive counseling and have occasional access to telephones.

TAYLOR PENDERGRASS: We really think that this is the beginning of a whole new era in the New York state prison system when it comes to solitary.

MANN: This kind of reform is underway around the U.S., and some states have found it actually helps reduce the number of violent incidents in prisons. New York has one of the biggest prison systems in the country - more than 52,000 inmates - so the effort here will be watched closely. Alphonso David, a lawyer for Governor Cuomo's office, says this deal will make New York's correctional facilities more humane without hurting security.

ALPHONSO DAVID: This agreement will not only decrease the number of people that enter into solitary confinement, but it will create a safer environment for both inmates and staff.

MANN: But prison guards weren't included in these talks, and they've pushed back hard against solitary confinement reform. Their union issued a statement this afternoon saying it is simply wrong to curtail the use of isolation. Many corrections officers see it as an important method of control. Speaking earlier this year with NPR, union president Mike Powers rejected the idea that isolation cells are inhumane or have been over used.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MIKE POWERS: To say that it was used to commonplace is a fallacy. What you have is, you have a more brazen - you have a more violent felon coming into the system.

MANN: It's unclear how these reforms will work if frontline prison staff aren't on board. This agreement requires every corrections officer in New York state to undergo retraining. Their decisions about when to use solitary confinement will also be vetted by supervisors and audited by outside groups. Even if fully implemented, this deal won't mean isolation cells disappearing. In fact, three-quarters of the inmates now housed in solitary confinement will stay there, some of them for years. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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