A lawsuit that began as one prisoner’s pro se complaint over his sentence in solitary confinement became a wide-ranging challenge to state prison policies with yesterday’s filing of a complaint by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The group filed an amended complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, 11-cv-02694, a Southern District case challenging the isolation of prisoners. Inmate Leroy Peoples, who is serving a 16-year sentence at the Attica Correctional Facility for first-degree rape, lodged his complaint in April 2011. It survived a state dismissal motion.

The amended complaint filed yesterday by the NYCLU contends that Peoples, who is mentally ill, spent 780 days in a cell the size of an elevator. It alleges that his case is illustrative of a penal policy in which the state excessively uses “the box” to penalize a disproportionate share of black and mentally ill prisoners “for alleged infractions that often present no threat to prison safety.” The NYCLU claims that on any given day about 8 percent of the state prison population, roughly 4,300 people, are locked in punitive segregation. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision declined to comment.