The New York Civil Liberties Union is seeking class-action status for thousands of state prisoners held in special housing units, claiming their constitutional rights are being violated because they are locked up for 23 hours a day in "extreme isolation."
The legal maneuver, filed Wednesday, amends a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Leroy Peoples, who has spent several years in the controversial housing units.
It comes a month after the NYCLU and dozens of other civil and human rights and faith-based groups wrote to a United Nations official urging him to look into whether New York violates prisoners' rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment by placing so many in solitary confinement for arbitrary reasons and holding them there too long.
"I am examining it and if I decide that it falls within my mandate and the information is credible I will write to the United States government seeking to engage in a discussion about whether the facts are true and, if so, what can be done about it," said Juan E. Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
The NYCLU last October released a report that was highly critical of the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's use of special housing units, which hold inmates for up to 23 hours in either a single or double cell and isolate them from the general population.
In a report to the UN General Assembly, Mendez, of Argentina, said in October 2011 that solitary confinement should be used in only the most extreme cases -- and for no more than 15 days at a time.
"Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit . . . whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion technique," he told the world body, adding that solitary confinement could rise to the level of torture.
"New York uses conditions of extreme isolation that are too harsh, too often and for the wrong reasons," said Taylor Pendergrass, senior staff attorney at NYCLU and the lead author of its report.
The report, titled Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons, said corrections officials house too many people in solitary confinement -- as many as 4,200 a day for long periods ranging from months to years.
There are about 54,600 state prisoners, officials said.
State prison officials declined to comment. But Commissioner Brian Fischer responded to the NYCLU's report in October.
"The New York Civil Liberties Union has issued a report that supports their belief that disciplinary segregation in New York State prisons is 'arbitrary, inhumane and unsafe.' That is their opinion. I disagree," Fischer said.
"In reality, those in segregation on a daily basis see and interact with numerous facility staff who provide services outlined in Correction Law and departmental directives, including: medical, mental health religious counseling, education and personal hygiene," he said.
Fischer added that in September an "intense review" of placement and lengths of stay in the special units was launched.
A spotlight on New York's use of solitary confinement comes as the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced last month it would review its use of the practice after hearings held in Washington by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The NYCLU report said that people may be sent to the housing units in New York's prisons for minor infractions, not necessarily major crimes of violence, demonstrating that the sanction is not used as a last resort but "as a disciplinary tool of first resort," Pendergrass said.
Mendez said he could issue an opinion on whether the practice violates international standards and that it would be sent to the UN's Human Rights Council. However, his suggestions are nonbinding.