RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has agreed to make changes to the way prisons in his state use solitary confinement. The deal was prompted by a federal lawsuit, filed by critics who say inmates are being held for months, even years in isolation. Often, these inmates have committed only minor infractions and some are pregnant or mentally ill. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has our story.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Five Mualimm-ak spent 11 years in New York's prison system for criminal weapons possession and other charges. During that time, he was held in solitary confinement for a total of five years. That punishment, he says, often followed small violations of prison rules, like the time he ate an apple incorrectly.
FIVE MUALIMM-AK: Turns out that you're not supposed to eat the apple core because apple seeds contain arsenic. So, I ate the core and I got a ticket for that.
MANN: Tickets mean more time in solitary. Mualimm-ak was also punished for fighting and for what prison guards viewed as uncooperative behavior. As months in solitary dragged into years, he says the loneliness and boredom became unbearable.
MUALIMM-AK: Once you finish counting all the bolts in the floor or looking at the paint in the wall and how many cracks in the wall and the wind, the whiffs under the door start sounding like sounds and delirium sets in and you get depressed.
MANN: In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union published a report showing that thousands of men and women are being held in these special isolation units, some for more than a decade. Those inmates are locked in their cells alone 23 hours a day. And even during exercise periods, they rarely have human contact. Donna Lieberman, the group's executive director, says many inmates who need medical care and counseling are instead kept in solitary.
DONNA LIEBERMAN: Including young people, including people who are developmentally disabled and pregnant women.
MANN: The New York Civil Liberties Union sued. And while the case moved through federal court, negotiations began between Governor Cuomo, state corrections officials and reform advocates. The deal announced this week will end the use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable inmates. Lieberman says it will also mean strict limits on the length of time an inmate can be locked away.
LIEBERMAN: These changes, while just a first step, are significant. They're historic. We're the largest system in the country to preclude solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners. That's huge.
MANN: Corrections officials have also agreed to spend the next two years developing strict new guidelines limiting the use of solitary confinement as a punishment, except for the most severe infractions. New York's acting prison commissioner, Anthony Annucci, declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying that these new guidelines will, quote, "make the disciplinary practices in New York's prisons more humane." The head of New York's prison guard union, Donn Rowe, wouldn't comment on this deal. But after the New York Civil Liberties Union filed their lawsuit, he wrote an editorial for the New York Post, describing solitary confinement as critical for ensuring stability and safety in state prisons. Martin Horn was commissioner of New York City's prison system or six years and teaches now in John Jay College. He says there are times when isolating inmates makes sense.
MARTIN HORN: Some segregation will always be necessary in a prison system like New York's for safety reasons.
MANN: Horn agrees that these reforms were needed to prevent the overuse of isolation. But he says the new rules could leave prison guards with fewer tools for maintaining order.
HORN: As programs and activities have been stripped as a result of budget cuts, all that is left is idle inmates, and idle inmates make problems.
MANN: Horn says he hopes New York State will now move to develop and fund new education and training programs to take the place of solitary confinement, replacing punishments with incentives. In fact, this week's agreement comes as Governor Cuomo has been pushing an aggressive prison reform agenda, including a call for more education and inmate reentry programs. After getting out of prison last year, Five Mualimm-ak says his years in solitary left him suffering insomnia and depression.
MUALIMM-AK: When I first came home, I didn't even know what type of face to make when I'm talking to somebody or, you know, feeling odd even talking on the phone.
MANN: Mualimm-ak says he too thinks this deal is a good first step and will help inmates find rehabilitation and counseling rather than isolation. California, Colorado and other states are also considering changes to their solitary confinement policies. Reform advocates here say they hope New York's new guidelines will serve as a model. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in upstate New York.