Officials are considering new limits on solitary confinement in city jails in the wake of a 27-year-old woman’s death on Rikers Island earlier this month, THE CITY has learned.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislative leaders last week shelved a bill that would have restricted the use of solitary confinement across the state. But the city’s Board of Correction is mulling new rules that would bring similar changes to local jails, board member Dr. Bobby Cohen confirmed Thursday.
The new policies would impose a 15-consecutive-day limit on so-called punitive segregation — isolation as a form of punishment — down from 30 days, Cohen said.
The rules also would require a minimum of four hours of time outside of cells daily. Detainees currently can be locked alone in a cell for up to 23 hours straight.
Her death has become a rallying cry for advocates and officials who want to end such isolation — as well the prostitution and low-level drug possession arrests that put her behind bars on $500 bail.
The cause of Polanco’s death has yet to be determined.
‘Urgent Need’ for Reform
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Council Criminal Justice Committee Chair Keith Powers sent a letter to the Board of Correction Thursday that asked the oversight board to “conduct a review of solitary confinement with an aim toward ending the practice.”
They also called for the board to create limits that echo the failed state bill, called Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement.
Polanco’s death “highlights the urgent need to reform our current system of restricted housing,” the Council members wrote.
“This tragedy reflects the broader failure on the part of the city to address the harmful effects of solitary confinement on incarcerated individuals’ mental health, physical well-being, and humanity.”
The Council’s Progressive Caucus and Women’s Caucus also penned a letter Wednesday demanding an end to solitary at Rikers and the decriminalization of sex work, among other issues.
“The city has an opportunity to take the national lead in ending solitary confinement,” Powers (D-Manhattan) told THE CITY. “A good start would be implementing our own version of HALT and ensuring that vulnerable populations are not subject to conditions that may further the mental and physical stress of being incarcerated.”
Peter Thorne, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, noted that the de Blasio administration already has eliminated so-called “punitive segregation” for inmates under 22 and for people with “serious” mental illness. “It is only used as a last resort and we will continue to look for ways to further reduce its use,” he added.
The unions representing city jail officers are vehemently opposed to limiting the use of solitary. They contend that inmates who act out, sometimes violently, must be separated from others.
“The inmates are fully aware of our lack of authority and the lack of consequences for the inmate offenders,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association. “To further restrict use of solitary confinement will only embolden the inmates further.”
Studies have shown the use of solitary confinement can cause medical issues and exacerbate preexisting mental illness. A 2014 study conducted in New York City jails found solitary confinement was associated with self-harm and death.
Inmate advocates contend that providing increased programming and social services is a far better alternative.
‘She was a Human’
In a phone interview Thursday, Melania Brown, Polanco’s sister, said she hoped the city would cease using solitary confinement immediately, calling the Board of Correction changes “a start.”
“I believe 100% that that’s just torture,” she said. “I believe that not even an animal should be in a cage, let alone a human being.”
Officials emptied the solitary confinement unit at the women’s jail on Rikers after Polanco’s death. Brown said the entire island should be shut down.
“A 10-year plan?” she said of the in-the-works Rikers phase-out. “How many other families gotta grieve like us or mourn like us or go through what we’re going through?”
During a rally on the steps of City Hall Wednesday, Brown spoke of the agony of knowing where sister died.
“It’s not okay for them to put us in a box like we are a thing — like they put my sister,” she said. “She was not a thing, she was a human.”
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