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Cookhorne v. Fischer Settlement Provides Beneficial Reforms for Youth in Solitary Confinement

Posted in 2014, Federal Update Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Cookhorne v. Fischer Settlement Provides Beneficial Reforms for Youth in Solitary Confinement

Prisoner’s Legal Services of New York (PLS) reached a landmark settlement with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in the case of Cookhorne v. Fischer which will result in significant and positive changes regarding the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary sanction for 16 and 17 year old inmates in DOCCS custody.

The settlement agreement contains several amendments to DOCCS policies and prohibits solitary confinement of youth for disciplinary purposes by limiting the maximum hours of confinement per day. The agreement mandates that a youth may be confined for no more than 18 hours a day, five days per week, and no more than 22 hours the other two days of the week. It further establishes a minimum number of hours for programming and recreation during this out-of-cell time. The settlement agreement also requires that regulations be amended to state that age is a mitigating factor in disciplinary proceedings where a youth has been accused of misconduct and requires a written statement of how the age affected the disposition.

Other important changes under the agreement include:

  • A one-time review of all youth and former youth currently in solitary confinement which shall consist of a clinical evaluation by DOCCS medical staff and a review of the youth’s institutional record to determine whether the inmate’s disciplinary sanction should be modified;
  • An assessment of every youth in solitary confinement and every former youth under the age of 21 who has been continuously held in solitary confinement to determine their need for an individual education plan;
  • The hiring of licensed master social workers with children and youth specialties;
  • The implementation of positive adolescent-appropriate programs for the treatment and management of youth including a plan to transition the youth back to general confinement;
  • The development of training materials for hearing officers which emphasize the requirement that the inmates age be considered as a mitigating factor;
  • And a procedure for the review of disciplinary confinement sanctions imposed on youth.

This case originated from the sentencing of 17-year-old Paul Cookhorne in November of 2011 to four years in solitary confinement for allegedly assaulting a correctional officer. According to a press release from PLS, inmates in solitary confinement in NYS prisons are held in a cell the size of small parking space for 23 hours a day. Cookhorne was also denied phone calls packages, commissary, and good time credits for four years. The settlement agreement in this case is in line with a prior settlement reached last year in the case of Peoples v. Fisher which also challenged the use of solitary confinement in NYS prisons. Knowing the physical, emotional, and psychological harm created by the use of solitary confinement, these settlements indicate a positive step in reforming the practices and policies governing solitary confinement in NYS prisons.