rikers solitary confinement cell

DESEGREGATION?: New York City’s jail-oversight board will draft a rule that effectively ends the use of solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation, for all Department of Correction inmates. Following the conclusion of an administrative process, including a public-comment period and hearings, the regulation could be in place by early next year, concluding a years-long effort by advocates and elected officials to ban the practice. Above, a solitary cell at Rikers Island. 

Following years of intense scrutiny and two high-profile deaths of inmates who had been held in solitary confinement, the city is poised to become the largest one to ban the practice. 

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio vowed to abolish solitary, which has come in for fierce criticism from advocates, inmates, officials and, in particular, the families of Kalief Browder, whose 2015 suicide was widely attributed to his long stints in solitary before his release from Rikers Island, and  Layleen Polanco, who died last year while in punitive segregation, as the practice of isolating prisoners is also known.


‘Safe Transition’ 

During the Board of Correction’s Nov. 10 meeting, the jail-oversight panel’s chair, Jennifer Jones Austin, said a working group composed of DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, BOC Vice-Chair Stanley Richards, Just Leadership USA’s president, DeAnna Hoskins, had drawn up recommendations for a rule that would abolish the use of solitary. The board's rules committee will now convene to draw up a directive ending the practice.

“This change is a result of the important and moving testimony that we received from the public and the board’s confidence that the department can safely transition away from the harmful practice towards a disciplinary system that works for the people detained and working in the jails,” she said. 

The president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, Benny Boscio, while part of the working group, requested that his name be removed from any final report given his vigorous opposition to ending the practice. Although he took part in some of the working group sessions, he did so “for the exclusive purpose of presenting why eliminating punitive segregation is a completely reckless and dangerous plan,” a union spokesman, Michael Skelly, said.

The complete elimination of the practice, he said, “will only fuel the jail violence we continue to see to new heights.” Mr. Skelly said the union and Mr. Boscio would continue to make that argument to City Hall.

Commissioner Brann said the move reflects the department’s commitment to correction reform, which has included the elimination of solitary for those under 22 and for those who are seriously mentally ill. 

“We have worked tirelessly under this administration to create a correctional system that is safer, more humane and fair while fundamentally reforming and significantly reducing the need for punitive segregation, and will continue collaborating with our working group partners as we develop safe alternatives to its use," she said in a statement.

The city in 2016 banned the use of solitary for adolescents and detainees younger than 22 following the suicide of Mr. Browder two years after his release from a Rikers Island jail. After his May 2010 arrest, at 16, on charges that he had stolen a backpack, he spent two years of his three-year term in solitary. His suicide was attributed to ongoing depression, and cited by advocates and others as evidence that punitive segregation was overly harsh, particularly for younger inmates. 

The campaign to abolish solitary altogether gained added momentum after the death of Ms. Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, in June 2019 while in solitary after DOC staff failed to get aid while she was having a seizure. At the time, she had been on Rikers for a month on misdemeanor assault charges and in solitary for about three weeks after an altercation with another inmate.    

The use of solitary has increasingly been criticized as a potentially brutal form of punishment by several Non-Governmental Organizations, including the United Nations, which, in a 1984 report, labeled it a “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” In 2014, a report issued by the office of Preet Bharara, at the time the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, concluded that "DOC’s use of prolonged punitive segregation for adolescent inmates is excessive and inappropriate." 

‘Is It Ever Going to End?’

Ms. Polanco’s older sister, Melania Brown, castigated the DOC and the board for not moving fast enough to ban the practice, and recalled the Mayor’s promise to her that it would cease by October.

“Is it ever going to end?” she asked during the BOC’s 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.” 

Noting that a high number of inmates are diagnosed with mental-health and substance-abuse issues, Brooklyn City Councilman Antonio Reynoso said using the practice on that population was doubly punitive, adding that the evidence showing that solitary confinement was harmful “is overwhelming.” 

“How can we as a society continue to carry out a practice that we know harms people?” he said during the meeting. “This is not a practice that any civilized society should be engaged in. Solitary confinement speaks to a desire for revenge and vindictiveness, not public safety or rehabilitation.” 

'Reform Restrictive Housing'

Ms. Jones Austin said the public-comment period early this year, the pandemic and the working group’s discussions meant that “more time has lapsed than was ideal or desired” for the process to get to this point. 

“But we believe that the final rule will reflect a shared desire to reform restrictive housing in a way that achieves our goals concerning accountability with humane treatment and safety for all,” she said. 

Following a 30-day public-comment period, additional hearings and sign-off by the Law Department, solitary could be confined to the department’s past by early next year. 

“This rule will seek to meet the same standard that we set for the working group: a rule and a disciplinary system that prioritizes transparency, accountability, safety and support for all, all staff and all people in custody,” Ms. Jones Austin said. 

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