Three years after the Department of Correction ostensibly ended solitary confinement for 18 to 21-year-olds, legal advocates say that city jail officials have rolled out a new form of extreme isolation—one with no apparent restrictions on detainees' age, mental health, or medical status.
The confinement practice, known as "separation status housing," was implemented last month following the arrival of ionized body scanners on Rikers Island. The devices are used to search incarcerated people for weapons or drugs "secreted on or in individuals' body cavities."
In a letter sent this week to the Board of Correction, which ensures that standards are met in the city's jails, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann requested that existing limits on the use of solitary be lifted in cases of a positive scan. "The department has a responsibility," she wrote, "to ensure that the individual's separation takes the least restrictive form possible in order to safely recover the contraband before it causes harm."
But legal observers say that the new status is already being used as a punitive form of segregation with little oversight or safeguards. While the DOC has not publicly shared its policies surrounding the units, attorneys told Gothamist there is no established timeline for how long a person can be placed in isolation and no medical or mental health screening to determine if the placement could present a danger.
A spokesperson for the DOC insisted that "separation housing" is not solitary confinement, but did not answer multiple questions about its use, including whether there are any age restrictions, by press time.
Kayla Simpson, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, called the practice a "clear end run around crucial protections designed to limit New Yorkers' contact with solitary confinement." Research has shown that solitary can cause long-term psychological harm and increase the risk of suicide—particularly among young people.
Of the fifteen individuals that have been placed in isolation since the policy went into effect on July 15th, several of them are believed to be teenagers.
In one case, a person under the age of 21 says he was stuck in the segregated housing unit for more than 48 hours, according to his attorneys. He described the cell as a small dark space with no air conditioning, where he was deprived of access to a phone and basic needs like a toothbrush.
The man was also allegedly refused dinner by one of the jail employees, who claimed there wasn't enough food in the facility. Throughout his isolation, he denied possessing any contraband, and says he repeatedly asked for a second body scan, but was rebuffed.
Attorneys have also raised concerns that the new scanners may be turning up false positives, along with the possibility that jail staff has not been properly trained on the machines.
A Correction Department spokesperson, Peter Thorne, said in a statement: "Our high-tech scanners help prevent the flow of dangerous contraband into our city jails, and are an important resource in our larger effort to increase safety in jails."
The new policy comes amid growing calls to end the use of solitary confinement in New York, fueled in part by the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman. She was found dead in a Rikers Island solitary unit this past June, and was later determined to have died of complications from epilepsy.
A bill to end the imprisonment practice failed in Albany this year, after Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed it would be too costly. But even without state legislation, the Department of Corrections could elect to curtail the use of the controversial tactic on Rikers, or get rid of it altogether.
The DOC spokesperson has previously said the agency is committed to reducing the controversial tactic.
"DOC cannot publicly tout its 'progressive stance' on eradicating punitive segregation for young adults and people with serious mental illness while it privately throws them in extreme isolation, without a meaningful avenue to challenge the determination, and absent medical or mental health clearance," she said. "Especially in the wake of recent tragic deaths in custody, it is unconscionable that the City is adding new punitive policies."
In a statement to Gothamist, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said, "Protecting the health, safety, and security of those in our custody and personnel is of utmost concern, and detecting contraband is part of that effort. We will continue to work with the Department of Correction to ensure this commitment is reflected in all of our practices."
UPDATE: Following publication of this article, a DOC spokesperson did respond to some of Gothamist's inquiries. According to the agency, no one under the age of 18 is eligible for placement in Separation Housing, and the average stay is approximately 1.5 days.
While detainees do not get a mental or medical health exam before being placed in the units, Correctional Health Service employees make daily rounds, according to the agency. A spokesperson did not provide the exact figures on the number of people in isolation, nor the amount of contraband recovered through the scans, but said it was under 20 for both.