2017 Morrison & Foerster Pro Bono Report

GETTING OUT OF THE BOX One of the most brutal forms of punishment in U.S. prisons, solitary confinement harms both society and the individual. The door to reform is opening, one state at a time. According to estimates, the U.S. prison system holds as many as 100,000 people in isolation — a number unequaled by any other democratic country in the world. Historically, solitary confinement — known to many in prison as “the box” — has been overused as a tool to punish people in prison, often for nonviolent and minor infractions. The trauma inflicted by solitary confinement is well documented, including depression, hallucinations, violent mood swings, and, in many cases, long-lasting mental impairment. A United Nations expert concluded that prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture and should be prohibited. MoFo is at the forefront of the movement to achieve meaningful reform of isolation practices in U.S. prisons. In March 2016, a federal judge approved the settlement of a class action lawsuit against the state corrections department brought in 2013 on behalf of all New York State prisoners by the New York Civil Liberties Union, MoFo lawyers, and attorney Alexander Reinert. After three years of negotiations, a landmark settlement overhauling solitary confinement was achieved. I HOPE THAT NEW YORK CAN FINALLY BEGIN TO FIND ITS WAY OUT OF THE BOX. TONJA FENTON When fully implemented, the settlement should substantially reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement in New York. Before the lawsuit, 87 different infractions of prison rules could land an inmate in solitary. Of those, 23 can no longer be punished by isolation, and 42 cannot be punished by solitary for a first offense. Up to 1,100 inmates will avoid isolation altogether or be housed in alternative units that allow greater human contact — such as monthly phone calls and group recreation — and this will improve the chances of rehabilitation. “New York officials recognized the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system and came to the table with an appetite for reform,” said Jennifer K. Brown, MoFo senior pro bono counsel. “Our firm was honored to play a part in the negotiations that led to this historic pact.” One of the plaintiffs was Tonja Fenton, who received three solitary sentences for nonviolent conduct. At the settlement announcement, she said: “I hope that New York can finally begin to find its way out of the box.” 21 | Morrison & Foerster Pro Bono Report