An official's revelation that a man was isolated in a cell at Rikers Island for more than 30 hours before his death earlier this month exposes a stark reality: Although corrections officials claim there is no solitary confinement at the city’s jail complex, the practice still exists by other names.
According to current and former correction officials, detainees, and defense lawyers, people incarcerated at Rikers continue to be held alone, behind bars and plexiglass, in cells and sometimes shower cages, for lengths of time that defy United Nations rules for the treatment of the incarcerated.
The city last year had created a more humane system of isolating, punishing, and rehabilitating detainees accused of infractions involving violence or contraband. That system included legal representation, mental health support and 10 hours outside cells. But that plan has repeatedly been delayed since last year due to what officials say is a dearth of correction officers to implement it. Now, in accordance with emergency executive orders issued by Mayor Eric Adams, it’s on hold indefinitely.
“Over and over again, this is how reform efforts get sabotaged in this agency,” said Kayla Simpson, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which represents many pre-trial detainees at Rikers.
Simpson spoke at a recent meeting of the city’s jails oversight agency, the Board of Correction, which enacted the more humane rules on solitary confinement that jail officials say they can’t implement. “All of this is happening against the background of not only the persistently horrifying drumbeat of instability and death, but also of a city that has decided to use emergency executive authority so that it decides what rules it will follows and when, in defiance of oversight structures like this board,” she said.
Solitary confinement is defined by experts on torture as sensory deprivation and a lack of human interaction, lasting at least 22 hours over consecutive days. New York City Correction Commissioner Louis Molina has said plainly that solitary does not exist at city jails, because detainees punished for infractions through separation from the general population are afforded at least seven hours for out-of-cell time every day.
“The department does not practice solitary confinement,” he said in an interview on WNYC days later, 31-year-old father Elijah Mohammad died after being isolated at Rikers. The cause is still under investigation.
But people whom officers deem to pose behavioral and mental health problems are still being held in units with different names, sometimes in conditions and for stretches of time that meet definitions of solitary confinement, Gothamist learned from board members, lawyers, incarcerated people, and their families.
Among those are “de-escalation units,” which officials say are used for those who pose an immediate threat to incarcerated people or staff. Legally, people can’t be held in these units for more than six hours. And Mohammad, who died this month, had spent more than a day there with other men who didn’t have access to necessities like medication, according to Bobby Cohen, a member of the city Board of Correction. Mohammad died shortly thereafter; he is one of 11 people to die this year after being held in city jails.
“The de-escalation units are not just places to dump people when you don’t know what to do with them,” Cohen said at a recent meeting of the board.
Within de-escalation units are caged showers intended to scrub people exposed to chemical agents sprayed by officers, Molina explained. Detainee Brandon Rodriguez died by suicide in such a shower last year, and people can be held inside these stalls for as long as a day, according to NBC New York.
Then there’s the NIC jail, or the North Infirmary Command, where correction board member Felipe Franco said he personally met with detainees a few weeks ago who were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day, with one man who said he was suicidal locked in such a setting for months. His account suggests that staff are not abiding by the provisions of the HALT Act, a new state law that requires seven hours of daily out-of-cell time and limits the use of segregated confinement to 15 consecutive days.
Meanwhile, over at yet another Rikers’ unit – Transitional Restorative Unit, or TRU – Mychael DiFrancisco has only been let out of his cell to shower four times in three weeks, and was recently locked in his cell for eight days straight, according to his mother, Melissa Vargara, who has intermittently spoken with him and someone incarcerated in a cell nearby. She said he most recently got punished after splashing water on an officer who DiFrancisco says ignored his requests for a COVID test. A spokesperson for the DOC denied the allegations, saying individuals in this unit for young adults with aggressive behavior are offered 14 hours out of their cells every day.
Rivera said her son has developmental delays, autism, and motor skill challenges so severe he can’t tie his own shoes. Since landing at Rikers last year, he lost a piece of a finger when a door slammed on it. He was also stabbed, and taken off his anxiety and depression medication for weeks at a time.
“He gets agitated, he has episodes, he has outbursts of anger,” said Vargara, who works in the mental health field. “[Officers] don’t have the education to deal with a person with my son’s mental health disorder so they constantly are punishing him for his symptoms and not getting him the proper treatment … The whole time that they’re there is such constant punishment.”
Officially, the Department of Correction does not use the term solitary confinement at all; until recently it used the term “punitive segregation,” and it now calls areas used for punishing incarcerated people “restrictive housing.” Regardless officials point to data showing that over the years there’s been a dramatic decrease in its use.
In 2013, according to a Department of Justice investigation, as much as 25% of younger incarcerated people at Rikers were in punitive segregation, often for non-violent infractions. Most were there for more than 60 days. That year the Department of Correction stopped using punitive segregation units for the seriously mentally ill. In 2016, it eliminated the practice for those under the age of 22.
And the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, who suffered epileptic seizures after officers failed to check on her in a solitary cell where she was held for allegedly fighting, sparked further action. The following year then-Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke of a “vision of ending solitary confinement, ending punitive segregation once and for all in New York City.”
“This is something that could be a signature moment for change and reform and for a humane approach to rehabilitating people and turning around their lives,” he said at the time.
Last year, after three years of negotiations with various city departments and the correction officers’ union, the Board of Correction approved replacing all forms of punitive segregation with the Risk Management Assessment System. Rooted in positive incentives and therapeutic programing, the new rules mandated legal representation to those charged with violations. And most notably, all incarcerated people put in the new, more humane system were to be given at least 10 hours every day to access the law library, educational services, recreation, and phones. They’d have case managers, daily check-ins by mental health professionals, and opportunities to socialize with at least one other person.
Yet that plan has repeatedly been scuttled via mayoral executive orders issued every five days since November, first by de Blasio and now Adams. The orders say that due to the pandemic, the new system cannot be implemented. About 300 officers and captains are needed to run it around-the-clock, according to Stanley Richards, a former correction official who helped write the rules. But since last summer the officers have used their unlimited sick time benefit to call out en masse, according to corrections officials and an independent monitor.
Many officers have since returned to work, department data shows. But the federal monitor who oversees Rikers affirmed that there still aren’t enough staffers to properly start the program. Instead, the monitor recommended a consultant, which the city has since retained, to develop yet another restrictive housing model.
In the meantime, the opaque patchwork of restrictive housing units where people continue to be held in relative isolation remains.
City officials’ nagging inability to make conditions more humane at Rikers is the thrust behind a growing chorus of advocates and former correction officials who want a federal receiver to be appointed to run operations at Rikers Island. But a federal judge has said no decision on a federal takeover will be made until at least November.
In the meantime, the department keeps detainees who allegedly commit violence in an area called Enhanced Supervision Housing, which Molina said is operated “with the spirit of” the other scuttled system. Everyone in this unit is out of their cells a minimum of seven hours a day, according to the department, and they work with non-uniformed staff on setting goals and behavior modification. Officers there have also stopped using restraint desks, where people are locked onto a seat during their outside-of-cell time.
When people ask me to describe solitary the only word I can use is torture
Still, detainees are not afforded legal representation before being placed there, like they would have been if the new system had been implemented. As of last week, 91 people were held in Enhanced Supervision Housing, according to the Department of Correction.
In a statement in response to questions for this story, Molina said: “We are committed to operating Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) and other less restrictive housing options to safely house individuals who have committed violent acts in compliance with HALT Act requirements. By using sound correctional practices and strategies we are transforming our facilities into a safe and humane jail system.”
Correction officers are deeply skeptical of any system that doesn’t involve isolating people prone to violence. They say it keeps both themselves and incarcerated people safe.
Still, prolonged isolation is dangerous in and of itself. One study showed that those who spent time in punitive segregation at Rikers were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves.
Advocates for incarcerated people also say that it doesn’t just take poor behavior to find oneself locked in a cell for endless hours. Security lock-ins, or lockdowns, can be triggered in any unit by emergency or security situations, and those who spend time in the jails say lockdowns can become a de facto form of solitary confinement.
“On lockdown people don’t have access to showers, they are being forced to take bird baths, which is a method of bathing using toilet water,” alleged Natasha Mangham of the Bronx Defenders, which represents Rikers detainees, at the correction board meeting. “There is no out of cell time. Even the provision of food has been scarce and inconsistent.”
Lockdowns only last as long as it takes to investigate the incident that precipitated the emergency, according to the Department of Correction, and during such emergencies detainees are still taken to medical appointments and court appearances.
Most people at Rikers have not been convicted of crimes. They are still awaiting their day in court. The island is made up of dilapidated facilities scheduled to be closed by 2027 and replaced with borough-based jails. In the meantime, the violence at Rikers continues to rise. That inevitably means more detainees will be punished.
At a rally at City Hall earlier this month to call for approval of a city council bill banning solitary, Candie Johnson spoke of how she spent more than 1,000 days in solitary at Rikers seven years ago. “When people ask me to describe solitary the only word I can use is torture,” she said.
She was deprived of not just human contact, but basic necessities like sanitary napkins. “One time I took my jumper, I ripped it up, I put it in my vagina area so I could catch the blood,” she said. “And they gave me more days in solitary for destroying [Department of Correction] property, which was the jumper.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name for the Transitional Restorative Unit, or TRU. This story has also been updated to include the Department of Correction's response to a statement by Melissa Vargara about her son's treatment in TRU.