Legal Aid Society

Projects, Units & Initiatives

The Prisoners’ Rights Project

The Prisoners’ Rights Project is a leading advocate of humane and constitutional conditions in the New York City jails and State prisons. The Project seeks to dismantle the oppression and racism of the carceral system by protecting the safety and basic human rights of the people who are subjected to it.

Some of the problems we address include violence by correctional staff; protection from harm; denial of medical and mental health care; denial of education; treatment of LGBTQ+ people; and discrimination against people with disabilities. PRP engages in law reform and class action civil rights litigation to seek systemic change inside jails and prisons and advance the law governing incarceration, and advocates for regulatory and legislative protections for incarcerated people.

Our Impact

Since its establishment in 1971, the Prisoners’ Rights Project has been at the forefront of litigation and advocacy to improve the conditions and treatment of people incarcerated in New York City jails and New York State prisons and reform the laws governing the treatment of people during incarceration. A few of these achievements include:

Requiring school for youth in jail
PRP’s lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education to provide schooling to high school youth held in adult jails resulted in the opening of a new high school on Rikers Island and a transformation of how the City provided education in the jails.

Ensuring decent medical care
PRP’s medical care litigation in various state prisons and the Rikers Island Infirmary set the standards for the rest of the jail and prison system.  We also brought statewide litigation about the treatment of prisoners with HIV, which resulted in substantial improvements in HIV care throughout the prison system.

Improving safety and living conditions in City jails
After the Tombs riots in the early 1970s over abysmal jail conditions, PRP began a program of litigation to force the New York City jails to comply with constitutional standards of decency.  PRP’s jail conditions litigation resulted in the closing of the old “Tombs” and shoddy modular housing units built during the incarceration boom of the 1980s; sanitation, ventilation and hygiene standards to protect health;  air-conditioning for people locked in punitive segregation units 23 hours per day to mitigate the risk of heat-related illness; and maintenance of fire alarms in all facilities.

Remedying gross overcrowding in the City jails
PRP succeeded in ending the practice of double-celling incarcerated people in cells designed for a single persons and obtained overcrowding orders now embodied in the City Board of Correction Minimum Standards.

Redressing inadequate mental health treatment
Through settlement of a statewide challenge to inadequate mental health care in the New York State prison system, PRP and advocates required New York State to overhaul treatment programs for people with mental illness.  The lawsuit brought new limits on the use and severity of isolated confinement for people with mental illness.

Preventing sexual abuse in prison
PRP seeks to protect incarcerated women from sexual abuse by staff by strengthening supervision and accountability.  We have been counsel in two systemic lawsuits challenging New York’s failure to protect women in DOCCS prison facilities from sexual abuse by correctional staff, including forcible rape; have helped many women obtain damages for their abuse with the assistance of pro bono counsel; and actively promote regulations to protect against sexual abuse, such as by serving on the Department of Justice’s Expert Panel on regulations to implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Curbing excessive use of solitary confinement
When people held in the City jails before trial were subjected to extensive cell confinement with little time out of the tiny cells and few opportunities for exercise, PRP obtained orders and agreements requiring the jails to provide daily access to outdoor exercise.   These became enshrined in the minimum standards of the New York City Board of Correction.  We have successfully fought back infringement of these standards in court, and actively campaign to halt solitary and isolated confinement in prisons and jails.

Ending shackling during birth and other abusive restraint practices
PRP’s litigation placed due process and medical limits on painful restraint practices that kept people incarcerated in City jails shackled and rear-handcuffed for up to 14 hours at a time during transportation and holding for court appearances. PRP also obtained orders limiting the shackling of incarcerated people held on hospital civilian wards, and barring shackling pregnant incarcerated women taken to hospitals for delivery.

Policy and advocacy
We engage in substantial advocacy to inform public policies affecting the lives of people who are incarcerated.   We advocated for changes in the Department of Justice regulations implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act and revisions to the state medical parole statute.  We advocate before the City Board of Correction, which has regulatory authority over the City jails.  We also have a vigorous program of non-litigation advocacy for individuals in both City and State custody, helping them obtain necessary medical or mental health care, ensuring their placement in protective custody, and in many cases providing them with the information they need to protect their own rights.


End Solitary Confinement
We work with the Jails Action Coalition in New York State and the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York State in an effort to limit the use of solitary or isolated confinement in both systems.

Close Rikers
We work with advocates throughout the City and on advisory committees to City government to advance the efforts to close Rikers Island, and end the culture of abuse and isolation that has characterized this penal colony.

Representative Cases

Ensuring supportive services for people with mental illness held in state prison
One of the most pressing problems undermining successful reentry after incarceration for people with serious mental health needs is the lack of housing and community-based mental health services and supports.  PRP and co-counsel Disability Rights New York and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP challenged this problem in M.G .v. Cuomo, a case on behalf of several homeless people with serious mental illness who are being held in New York state prison past their release dates because they require community-based mental health housing upon release, but none is available.  The suit seeks an injunction requiring New York State to provide these individuals with the supportive services they need.

Challenging jail brutality
For decades, the Prisoners’ Rights Project has been fighting to end the rampant brutality by staff against people incarcerated in New York City jails and mandate reforms to prevent abuse. Our successive class action litigations challenging staff brutality in individual jails lead to the landmark decision in Sheppard v. Phoenix, ended the reign of terror in New York City’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit. When the City failed in its obligations, PRP brought system wide class action litigation in Ingles v. Toro, which revised the use of force policy and piloted camera surveillance in the jails. When the excessive force problem persisted despite policies and promises by the Department of Corrections, PRP brought once again went back to federal Court in the hallmark litigation of  Nunez v. City of New York,  winning a historic comprehensive remedial court order which, if implemented properly, should significantly reduce the physical abuse in the City jail. As the problem has not been solved, PRP continues to monitor and respond to respots of brutality and abuse. For all the reports from the independent monitor, click here.

Protecting transgender people during incarceration
Through engagement in City planning processes, project staff were instrumental in helping to establish a Transgender Housing Unit in the New York City jails; in fighting to keep the unit open in the face of the City threatening to close it even though no safe alternative housing was available; and for insisting that the unit be housed in a women’s rather than men’s jail. Together with Legal Aid’s LGBTQ+ Unit and other advocates, we convinced the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) to allow transgender people in their custody to obtain gender-affirming surgeries. We also have been a leading advocate in the creation of national and local Standards to Prevent Prison Rape. Our staff has twice been recognized by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project as leading advocates for the transgender community in New York.

Read more about our cases here.