Corrections officers at the Rikers Island jail complex would be barred from holding incarcerated people alone in cells for extended periods of time under legislation that Public Advocate Jumaane Williams plans to unveil today.
The draft legislation, shared first with Gothamist, would allow officers to put people in solitary confinement only for a few hours if someone poses an immediate danger. Medical staff would also need to check on them every 15 minutes, and mental health clinicians would be required to conduct rounds once an hour. The bill is the latest effort to ban the use of a practice that human rights advocates have labeled as torture, after similar efforts were scuttled under former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Rikers Island is not a safe place to be right now, and how we're operating is leading to that,” Williams told Gothamist. “So, if everyone's agreeing that there's problems of minimum standards, there's problems of staffing, solitary confinement makes all of those things worse."
The proposal would also limit the use of other restrictive forms of housing — measures that curb the amount of time people can participate in activities or spend time with others. People would have the opportunity to be released back to the general population after 15 days if they don’t pose a “specific, significant and imminent threat.” Employees who interact with those in restrictive housing would also need to be trained in de-escalation, conflict resolution and the use of force policy.
Melania Brown said ending solitary confinement is essential. Her sister, Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, suffered a seizure while being held alone in a restrictive housing unit.
"I just didn't want anyone else to feel the pain that we was feeling of seeing my sister cold and in an examiner's bed on a death that could have been prevented,” Brown told Gothamist.
Brown’s family settled with the city for nearly $6 million in 2020 and 17 correction officers were disciplined for her sister’s death. But she says it’s not about the money.
“As long as solitary confinement is still in place, my sister will never get the proper justice that she needs,” Brown said.
But Michael Skelly of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association warned that without punitive housing, both staff and prisoners will be in danger and he is pushing for the bill to be rejected. Skelly said Council members should visit injured staff members and detainees at the hospital after an assault before they decide whether they’ll support the legislation.
"If you stand for safety and security, if you stand for protecting rights of nonviolent inmates and officers who show up to work every day to keep everyone safe — if you stand with them, then you'll vote against it," he said.
Mayor Eric Adams’ office said he'll review the legislation once it's introduced.
The continued existence of this policy ... speaks to the fact that carceral systems have not figured out how to exist without it.”
Experts have found that solitary confinement can have detrimental effects that sometimes last even after people have been released from prison.
“People who are put in solitary for a long time, they tend to come out with high rates of PTSD, anxiety, depression,” said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.
She said it can also affect people’s physical health, because they often can’t go outside to exercise or buy food from the commissary to supplement their diet. But for many correctional facilities in the U.S., she says, restrictive housing has become a vital tool to maintain safety.
“I don’t want to condone solitary,” Bertram said. “But I also think that the continued existence of this policy, despite the fact that I think many – if not most – people think it is a torturous thing to do to someone, speaks to the fact that carceral systems have not figured out how to exist without it.”
This city has tried to get rid of what corrections officials call "punitive housing" multiple times in the past. The Board of Correction approved a plan last year to eliminate it, though de Blasio ended up delaying the deadline, because of staffing shortages. More than two-dozen Council members also sent a letter to Adams just before he took office, urging him to condemn the practice.
A federal monitor is currently overseeing the city’s jail system, which has been plagued with rampant staff absenteeism, violence, limited access to healthcare and multiple deaths. A federal judge signed off on a new action plan earlier this week, which will allow local officials to keep running Rikers for at least another five months.
The state Legislature recently passed its own restrictions on solitary confinement in jails and prisons across New York, limiting its use to 15 days. The city Department of Correction says no one has been placed in punitive segregation since that law took effect in April. However, it does plan to phase in a new restrictive housing program, the Risk Management Assessment System, starting July 1. A spokesperson says it will be a tiered system, with those in the highest level allowed a minimum of 10 hours out of their cells.