Additional reporting by Josefa Velasquez
The death of Layleen Polanco in “punitive segregation” on Rikers Island spurred a coalition of local elected officials and activists to call for an end to solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is torture, plain and simple,” the City Council’s 23-member Progressive Caucus wrote in a statement released Thursday.
“Thousands of New Yorkers are suffering in solitary confinement, for weeks, days, months, with almost no meaningful human contact, programming, or therapy, in claustrophobic cells. These conditions can only lead to psychological and physical harm and neglect.”
The push to end solitary confinement has picked up renewed steam following Polanco’s death. But it wasn’t enough to save a state bill to limit solitary confinement: The measure never made it to a vote Thursday night.
The women’s solitary unit at Rikers was emptied after the 27-year-old transgender woman died on June 7, and has yet to reopen. There were 117 men held in punitive segregation units on Rikers as of Wednesday, according to the Board of Correction.
In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio ended solitary for people 21 and younger in city jails. People with serious mental or physical conditions also have been excluded, but most men and women age 22 and older are still subject to it.
“We need to go beyond that and I hope that this is a wake up call for us to actually do that,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Chelsea) said.
Councilmember Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), who is vice co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, asked the de Blasio administration to conduct a review of solitary confinement “with an aim toward ending the practice.”
A Call for Action in Albany
The Progressive Caucus members had also called on their counterparts in Albany to pass a bill dubbed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement. It would not ban the use of solitary outright, but would limit punishment to 15 days and require seven hours of out-of-cell activity daily.
Polanco was on day 9 of a 20-day punishment when she died. The cause of death was not clear. But, as THE CITY reported, Polanco spent eight days in a hospital while in custody, about two weeks before her death.
She was being held on $500 bail on a rap stemming from misdemeanor charges.
But the bill couldn’t make it out of either house late Thursday as the legislative session was drawing to a close. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had cast doubt on the measure, saying the reforms would be too expensive.
Legislative sources familiar with the plan told THE CITY that governor has committed to making administrative changes around the solitary confinement issue in lieu of the bill.
Meanwhile, Council members are exploring legislation to end solitary in the city’s jails. But the Board of Correction sets the rules for the Department of Correction to follow.
A board spokesperson confirmed Thursday that the oversight body is developing new solitary confinement policies.
On Polanco’s unit, women were provided three hours of group therapy on weekdays — none on weekends — and a requisite hour of “recreation” time in a cage, as THE CITY reported Wednesday.
The decision “to empty the women’s solitary unit at Rikers is the right one. Now keep it closed,” said Assemblymember Dan Quart (D-Manhattan), who is considering a run for Manhattan district attorney.
“Contrary to the claims of ‘city officials,’ being in lockup for 20 hours a day does in fact constitute solitary confinement and to claim otherwise is willfully misleading,” he added.
Advocacy groups, including the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice, joined the call to end to solitary confinement in city jails.
Activist Akeem Browder invoked the case of his brother Kalief, who spent about two years in solitary — then killed himself two years after being released.
“The psychological scars of Kalief’s experience continued to haunt him when he came home and all charges were dismissed,” Browder said in a phone interview. “Stopping solitary confinement is just a humanitarian effort to say you will no longer torture people.”
Voices for Keeping Solitary
The union representing city jail officers, however, is vehemently against a solitary ban, noting several recent cases of inmate assaults on staff.
On Wednesday, a man being held in a mental health unit at Rikers trapped a female correction officer inside a closet and tried to sexually assault her, jail records show.
Solitary confinement opponents “offer no real solutions other than saying correction officers should allow them to be assaulted. Inmates and civilian staff, too,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
He argued lawmakers care more about people charged or convicted of violent offenses than their victims. “They are saying that these people should not be segregated when they come to jail and continue that behavior. This is just sad,” Husamudeen said.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, echoed the union’s sentiment.
“These demands are well-intentioned, but misguided,” he said. “I believe we can use the policy judiciously and humanely to maintain peace in our jails while preventing avoidable tragedies.”
Multiple studies have challenged the assertion that solitary makes jails safer. A 2015 examination of more than 3,800 prisoners in 70 prisons in Texas found that those who were disciplined with time in solitary were no more or less violent after the punishment.
One former jail commissioner said he supported ending solitary as it is currently used, but was wary of Council and state legislative involvement.
“The bottom line is that it’s not good for a body like the Council to micromanage the [Correction] Department,” said Martin Horn, who served as Correction commissioner from 2003 to 2009.
Need for ‘a Culture of Care’
He noted there are alternatives to isolating inmates who act out. But those options require “resources, supervision in training and a culture of care,” he said.
“Nobody should ever be held in solitary,” he said. “But legislation that would prohibit the department from separating inmates who are a danger to others would end up hurting the people they are trying to protect.”
Meanwhile, the lawyer representing Polanco’s family said her death has brought “awareness” to the issue.
“Layleen’s family still must cope with the reality that Layleen died alone in a jail cell where she never should have been in the first place,” said attorney David Shanies. “Those wounds will not heal easily.”
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