Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has called for an end to solitary confinement in the city’s jails even as the head of the largest correction union criticized him and other advocates for pushing an agenda “that affects the safety and security of officers, civilians and inmates.”
Testifying before the Board of Correction, which held the first of two hearings on a proposed rule that would curtail to 15 days from 30 the maximum amount of time an inmate could be held in punitive segregation, Mr. Williams said it was a “moral imperative” to end the practice altogether.
“Solitary confinement is a torturous punishment that causes deep and permanent psychological, physical and social harm,” he said at the Dec. 2 hearing. “It is an ineffective, counterproductive, and unsafe disciplinary practice that fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior. We must end solitary confinement in the City of New York now.”
Mr. Williams said that while behavioral problems sometimes made it necessary to separate inmates, “that does not mean we have to isolate them.” Doing so, he said, is how “torturous behavior” begins.
“Fifteen days in solitary confinement is 15 days too long,” he said.
The Public Advocate was among about 30 speakers, including some former inmates, who addressed the board.
The BOC, which through a rulemaking process establishes so-called “minimum standards” for how the DOC treats and cares for inmates under its jurisdiction, has for some time debated changing guidelines regarding solitary confinement. Nearly five years ago, the board imposed a rule restricting the DOC from placing 16- to 21-year-olds or inmates with significant mental or physical disabilities or conditions in punitive segregation. The department did not fully conform to that rule for nearly two years.
Other Changes Weighed
Other than reducing the maximum punitive segregation sentence to 15 days (so-called PSEG sentences for assault on staff could extend to 60 days), this proposed rule would among other provisions allow those in solitary four hours outside their cell each day (for young adults, “lock-out” would increase from seven to 10 hours a day); eliminate the routine use of restraints; and require DOC to monitor and track compliance with the rule and its “core principles.”
But some advocates chided the board for not doing enough to challenge how the department administrates punishment and neglects to hold the DOC accountable when it skirts or disregards rules.
Frances Geteles, a clinical psychologist affiliated with the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, who has researched the effects of solitary, said the board should work to do away with punitive segregation completely.
“It is torture,” she said. “It makes people worse, it increases violence, it doesn’t decrease violence.”
‘Commit to Enforce’
Dr. Geteles criticized the board for too often acquiescing to the DOC when it asks the board for variances to rules, or, she said, disregards them altogether.
“There’s no action on your behalf,” she said. “You have to have a commitment to enforce these rules.” Simone Spirig, a jails services social worker with Brooklyn Defenders Services, said the DOC “repeatedly” creates new isolation units and statuses “under the guise of security concerns.”
“Each time they do so without transparency or accountability for the novel approach,” she said.
Those put on “deadlock status”—a form of extreme isolation that appeared to be unfamiliar to the board—are denied showers, phone calls, recreation and access to the law library “without meaningful appeal and without imposed time limitations,” Ms. Spirig said.
She said that status and others “highlights the limitations of the board’s oversight capabilities” in that the department “can and does bypass the BOC’s minimum standards.”
She urged to board to “go further” about the rulemaking process. “The board needs to demand transparency,” she said. “We need to address...conditions and have meaningful protocols for all forms of isolations.”
Board Member Robert Cohen, a physician who has practiced on Rikers, said the testimony from advocates and former inmates was essential in that it called attention to some aspects of segregation that the board had neglected or overlooked.
“We have a lot of work to do. A lot of things you are asking for should be in the rule,” he said. “Some of it we didn’t think of it, some of it just disappeared somehow.”
Although the jail population has dropped significantly in the last few years, the number of inmates in punitive segregation has decreased at a higher rate. As of Dec. 5, 125 inmates were in punitive segregation, according to the DOC. More than four times that number—543—were in solitary six years ago, prior to reforms instituted by the de Blasio administration, the department said.
Inmates in the most restrictive punitive segregation are given at least four hours of out-of-cell time and have opportunities to engage and speak with other inmates during that time, the department said.
No officials from the Department of Correction were present at the hearing, which Ms. Spirig said was “shameful,” with at least three others echoing her sentiments.
The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, who was not at the hearing but said he intends to attend the one scheduled for the evening of Dec. 16, said the board was far out of its depth in addressing punitive segregation.
“They are making policy that affects the safety and security of officers, civilians and inmates,” he said during a Dec. 4 interview. “They are operating far, far beyond their scope. They should not be dictating to the DOC.”
‘BOC a Joke’
Mr. Husamudeen dismissed the board’s effort—and the board itself—by citing the Public Enemy song “911 is a Joke.” “They should come out with a song, ‘The Board of Correction Is a Joke,’” he said.
“This agency does not want inmates to be held accountable for anything,” including assaults, he said, adding that punitive segregation had existed since jails were invented.
Asked about academic research documenting that prolonged isolation, such as that experienced by inmates in punitive segregation, often exacerbates behaviors that landed them in solitary in the first place, Mr. Husamudeen said he could just as easily cite research that proves it is a valuable punishment tool.
“The reality is most of the inmates who are put into punitive segregation don’t usually go back,” he said. “After one or two stints...they don’t go back.”
A Starting Point
But several of those testifying, most prominently former inmates, called solitary “torture.”
Marvin Mayfield, an organizer with the decarceration advocacy organization JustLeadershipUSA and a self-described “survivor” of both Rikers and solitary confinement, said that through a three-month period spent in segregation during summer months, at a time when inmates were not given any time outside their cells, “it was so hot that the walls sweat.” Those conditions obliged him to lay on the floor next to the door to get air, he said. “Make no mistake about it, solitary confinement is torture,” he said.
Dreadful conditions inside jails are such that they permeate and numb everyone, resulting in an environment largely anesthetized to deprivation, Mr. Mayfield said.
While not all corrections officers are “heartless,” he said, “after seeing so much trauma, seeing so much abuse, seeing so much hardship...they become desensitized to what happens to people, to what happened to human beings in solitary confinement.”
He said he has not been the same person since his stint in solitary. “We can do something better than what we have been doing,” he said.
‘Pause for Consideration’
Alluding to the hearing’s testimony, BOC Member Jennifer Jones Austin said the proposed rule “is a beginning. It is a working document.
“What you’ve done today has given us significant pause for consideration and for much more work to be done.”
The meeting was the first for the board’s newest member, Felipe Franco, a former Deputy Commissioner for Juvenile Justice with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. He succeeded Bryanne Hammill, a former Family Court Judge and outspoken critic of solitary confinement during her two board terms. Contrary to past practice, she was not reappointed by Mayor de Blasio when her term ended in October.
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