As New York State announced a series of reforms to reduce its use of solitary confinement, New York City took a step back. A new rule passed by the city’s Board of Correction yesterday allows jail officials to place inmates in solitary confinement for 60 straight days, eliminating a requirement to give them a temporary reprieve.
In January, the Board of Correction, which oversees minimum standards and guidelines for the city’s jail system, including Rikers Island, was seemingly on the path toward reform.
That month the Board passed a rule prohibiting the use of punitive segregation, also known as solitary confinement, for more than 30 consecutive days. After those 30 days, the person is allowed out of segregation for at least seven days, known as a seven-day waiver. The maximum amount of time a person can spend in segregation is 60 days during a six-month period.
But under the new rule passed yesterday, if a person has committed a serious assault on jail staff, he or she can be stuck in segregation for up to 60 days without a seven-day waiver.
Candie Hailey-Means spoke out against the rule at yesterday’s Board meeting. She noted that charges of assault on staff may not actually mean that a person has attacked a staff member. Hailey-Means recalled the four years she spent at Rikers awaiting trial and an acquittal. She told the Board that she was initially sent to segregation on charges of assaulting staff. “But the officer assaulted me,” she said.
Conditions in segregation were so awful that she tried to kill herself each day. Each attempt got her a disciplinary ticket. Each ticket got her more time in segregation. “It’s a miracle that I stand here today after three years in solitary confinement,” she said.
The rule also included new limitations on visiting. Visitors are allowed a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and end of each visit. They are still allowed to hold hands, but may have to do so over a partition. Children ages 14 and younger will still be allowed to sit on their parent’s lap; those over 14 must remain in their own chair. The Department can refuse to allow a visitor, but only for specific acts committed by the visitor during a prior jail visit.
Rikers saw 67,672 people cycled through in fiscal year 2015. The island’s average daily population was 10,240, down from 11,408 in 2014 and 12,790 in 2011. But violence has not gone down. In 2014, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found “a deep-seated culture of violence” on the island. That violence, he charged, includes violence at the hands of jail staff. But slashings and stabbings have also gone up—from 35 in 2011 to 90 in 2015.
In response to the continued culture of violence, the Department of Correction asked the Board to consider a rule limiting contact during visits, restricting packages to preapproved vendors and extending time allowed in segregation.
On November 5th, Correction Officer Ray Calderon was attacked by 18-year-old William Whitfield and 19-year-old Darnell Green, who slashed his face. Calderon required 26 stitches. The teens were charged with several counts of assault, criminal possession of a weapon, and criminal obstruction of beating. It turned out that this was not the first time Green had attacked an officer—he has previously thrown an undetermined liquid in an officer’s face and punched another officer.
Five days later, officers lined up to protest the Board for the restrictions on their ability to use force and on punitive segregation in January, restrictions they claim put their lives in danger.
“How dare you take away the only recourse we have to stop the violence,” declared Norm Seabrook, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. “Perhaps we’ll be having a conversation about an officer’s death.”
The Board seemed to listen. This past Friday, it released its proposed rule, which included a provision allowing the Department to extend time in punitive segregation for serious assault on an officer. To be considered a serious assault, the attack must cause one or more serious injuries. Once the person has been in segregation for 45 days, the Department must conduct a review to determine if he or she can be placed in another type of housing without jeopardizing others. If, during or after those 60 days, the person continues to engage in persistent acts of violence and no alternative housing can be found, the Department can keep him or her in segregation.
“There’s a sense that we’re rolling back a lot on the reforms we’ve accomplished,” Board member and retired family court judge Bryanne Hamill stated. But most of her colleagues disagreed. While the rule was modified to extend segregation only for persistent acts of serious violence, the Board passed the rule with a vote of six to two.