Victory in City Jails “Close Custody” Litigation

The Supreme Court of New York County has ruled in favor of prisoners in The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners' Rights Project's challenge to "close custody" housing in the New York City Department of Correction.

In “close custody” units, prisoners thought to be in need of protection, or in need of segregation from the jail population for other reasons, are kept locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, with an hour a day for exercise alone in metal cages. These conditions are similar to those in punitive segregation, where prisoners who have committed serious violations of jail rules are held.

PRP argued that this treatment, instituted in 2005 by former Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn, violates the Minimum Standards of the New York City Board of Correction, which provide that all City prisoners except for those in punitive segregation or medical isolation must be allowed 14 hours out-of-cell time per day. Justice Marcy Friedman of the New York County Supreme Court agreed with PRP’s argument, and dismissed the City’s contrary interpretation.

The Board of Correction promulgates standards for the treatment of City jail prisoners pursuant to authority granted by the City Charter. Justice Friedman held that the City had no discretion to disobey those standards, and noted that the City did not dispute its obligation to comply with them.

The court also noted the “substantial legal and scientific authority which recognizes the adverse mental health effects that may be caused” by isolated confinement, and that the Department of Correction did not seriously dispute the potential for such serious consequences.

The court granted a declaratory judgment stating that the Department of Correction must obey the Minimum Standard governing out-of-cell time, and said that the Department of Correction should formulate a plan for compliance, addressing such correctional concerns as adequate staffing and security measures. “I am thankful that the Court recognized what Commissioner Horn never did: that he and all other Department of Correction employees have a duty to obey the rules of the City's own Board of Correction for the decent and humane treatment of citizens in their temporary custody,” said Dale A. Wilker, The Legal Aid Society attorney who argued the case.