The city’s piecemeal efforts to end solitary confinement within its jails got added impetus last week with the introduction of City Council legislation that would ban the practice altogether.
Punitive segregation, as the method of isolating inmates is also known, is already prohibited for persons under 22 and for those with serious mental illnesses and medical conditions. But following resistance from the de Blasio administration, efforts by the Board of Correction, the city’s jail-oversight panel, to curtail if not entirely end solitary tailed off last year.
Mayor Changes Mind
In June, however, Mayor de Blasio, promised an end to the practice and convened a four-person working group, charging them with revisiting the issue. The move came days after the Department of Correction announced disciplinary steps against correction officers implicated in the June 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, while she was being held in solitary.
Despite pronounced opposition from correction unions, including the effective resignation from the working group by Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the panel returned with a recommendation to the Board of Correction that the practice be abolished.
The board’s rules committee is now drawing up a directive that, after years of effort by advocates and lawmakers, would make New York City the first large metropolis to end solitary.
But some have lamented and even criticized the Board of Correction’s earlier attempts to put a halt to solitary, saying that its rule-making process was too solicitous of DOC concerns. That sentiment was underscored by Ms. Polanco’s older sister, Melania Brown, who fiercely rebuked both the DOC and the board for not yet having put an end to the practice.
'No Justice for Sister'
“Is it ever going to end?” she asked during the Board of Correction’s Nov. 10 meeting. “There’s no justice for my sister until this system is ended...She deserves way more than what happened to her at the hands of the government. This system needs to be broken down completely and built from the ground up.”
The board, with the Mayor’s sanction, now has an effective endorsement to do away with solitary once and for all and is expected to propose a new rule governing solitary this month. And while any board rule would need the city Law Department to sign off, it would not need the Council's approval. Still, the Criminal Justice Committee will discuss legislation, introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm, who has long campaigned against the use of solitary, that would end the practice.
The committee’s Chairman, Keith Powers, said there is widespread support among Council Members to do away with punitive segregation.
“We think this practice is inhumane and needs to be changed,” he said.
Mr. Powers has on several occasions addressed the topic, including in a Sept. 9 letter he and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams wrote to the Mayor, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann and BOC Chair Jennifer Jones Austin in which they expressed their “disappointment” in the stalled BOC rulemaking effort last year.
'No Deterrent Value'
He and Mr. Williams outlined the “guiding principles” they wanted the Mayor’s working group to follow as they began their discussions. Foremost among them was the elimination of solitary in favor of “alternative” methods of confinement and initiatives that have demonstrably positive outcomes.
“There is not one study that speaks to the rehabilitative, restorative or deterrent value of solitary confinement,” they wrote.
Mr. Powers said the Committee hearing is not designed to usurp the Board of Correction’s process but rather to further raise the issue’s profile by discussing the working group’s findings.
“We think this is a good opportunity to hear about their recommendation and to talk about the long-term future” of solitary confinement, he said Dec. 1. “We think the Council has a role to play,” including with regard to “new models” of incarceration.
‘Harm and Danger’
Mr. Powers said that while there was “a groundswell of support” within the Council for, at the least, radically changing the rules governing solitary, the hearing would give everyone a chance to air out their opinions on the practice.
Among those could be Joseph Russo, the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, who said that fully doing away with punitive segregation would only “embolden” those inmates and detainees who are intent on wreaking havoc and violence inside the jails.
“There’s little consequence for criminal behavior,” he said, adding that violent incidents, including the rate of assaults on correction staff, has increased even as the inmate population has declined. “The inmates are out of control.”
Although Mr. Russo acknowledged some lawmakers had “good intentions” when advocating for the prohibition of solitary, he suggested that the city’s progressive political climate was obscuring a real need for repercussions when prisoners cross certain lines, and particularly when they engage in violent behavior toward staff.
Cure Worse Than Illness?
He said that recent efforts at reform had been counterproductive. “Results are nowhere to be found. The inmates are emboldened with each step they take,” he said. “There’s good intentions here. But the actions they’re taking are causing problems and harm and danger to other people,” such as other inmates and corrections staff.
Alluding to the recent slashing on the arm of a Correction Officer by a suspected gang member, Mr. Boscio, the COBA president, said the legislation being considered by the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee is “reckless.”
The union leader noted year-over-year increases in inmate assaults on staff, which according to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report had climbed from a rate of 12.5 to 15.8 last fiscal year, in characterizing this latest incident as “not isolated.”
The legislation, he said in a statement, would “threaten the lives of everyone in our jails…[and] as great a threat to our officers as the inmates who are assaulting us with impunity.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.