Additional reporting by Reuven Blau

In the days and months following Layleen Polanco’s June 2019 death in a solitary cell on Rikers Island, politicians urged change. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson called for an end to solitary confinement in the city, as did Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other Council members. The city’s jail oversight board seemed poised to impose long-planned limits on the city’s practice of isolating inmates as punishment.

But the changes to solitary confinement in New York City jails have not come.

Department of Correction officials, meanwhile, contend that their locking people in isolation for 21 hours a day plus a shower does not qualify as “solitary confinement” turning to the United Nation’s “Mandela Rules” 22-hour standard to prove their point. 

Advocates generally say that even a few hours of jail isolation can amount to torture.

“It’s just too much, it really is, it’s too much for the human body to deal with,” said Anisah Sabur, 61, the coordinator of the Coalition for Women Prisoners, who did a stint in solitary at Rikers.

A year after her death at age 27, Polanco is far from forgotten. Her name and image were seemingly everywhere at a gathering of thousands at an Action for Black Trans Lives march in Brooklyn Sunday. 

Polanco’s sister Melania Brown, who wants to see an end to solitary in the city, addressed the massive crowd from the steps of the Brooklyn Museum.  

“They gave me just what I needed to push a little harder, to fight harder,” she told THE CITY of the march attendees. “They got me ready, I’m ready to fight.”

Polanco, who had a medical condition that should have precluded her from being in isolation, was given 20 days in punitive segregation as punishment for her role in a fight with another detainee. She was jailed in lieu of $500 bail for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.

Mayor Battles Reform

As a vote on the oversight board’s reforms approached last fall, the de Blasio administration waged a quiet campaign against the changes. The administration ousted one of the board’s champions of reform, former family court judge Bryanne Hamill. 

A staffer for de Blasio’s First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, Freya Rigterink, made the rounds of board members arguing against the package. Board member Dr. Robert Cohen charged City Hall with stalling in an attempt to water down the reforms.

New rules limiting “punitive segregation” in city jails to 15 days were finally proposed in October. But the board has not yet passed them.

A coalition of advocates, many formerly incarcerated themselves, is calling for a total end to what they consider the form of torture. They want 10-hour-daily maximum time that most detainees can be locked in their cells — two hours during the day and eight at night—to be universal.

Sabur remembers thinking while in solitary confinement at Rikers: “I’m isolated, nobody’s around me, nobody could see me, nobody could hear me, maybe my life is over.”

“Hopefully with some of these reforms that they’re doing around policing, they would get the drift that there needs to be reforms around the officers on the inside as well,” she said, “‘Cause putting people in solitary’s a violent move.’”

Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, takes part in a Brooklyn march for Black trans lives, June 14, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Melania Brown

Mayor Bill de Blasio, asked about ending solitary confinement for adults in city jails earlier this month, said it is “something we need to evaluate in a thoughtful process with all the stakeholders and then decide if there’s the right time to take the next step.”

“I made the decision that we don’t want to see young people in solitary and we kept raising that age up, as you said, and I believe it was the morally right thing to do and I believe we’ve been able to do it in a way that’s effective,” de Blasio said, referring to the elimination of the practice in city jails for those under 22. “And I think it’s a valid question to say, can we go even farther now?”

Fuleihan is “looking at these issues,” he said.

Solitary Semantics

Meanwhile, the Correction Department contends it does not use solitary confinement at all — and refers to isolating prisoners only as “punitive segregation.” 

In the general jail population, rules prohibit lock-ins longer than 10 hours total in a 24-hour period, including a maximum of two hours during the day. But there are exceptions for housing areas created to punish inmates for alleged infractions by isolating them. 

Some 121 inmates were in punitive segregation in city jails Thursday, according to the Board of Correction.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012. Credit: Facebook

Rikers Island and all local jails in New York are required to provide four hours out-of-cell in a 24-hour period to all inmates in segregation, under state rules. 

The Department of Correction says that people held in punitive segregation in city jails get at least two hours of outdoor recreation activity daily and an hour “in the dayroom.” 

They also count a shower as an hour of out-of-cell time. 

The DOC notes that the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners — known as the Nelson Mandela rules — describe solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact” as proof that its schedule should not be considered solitary confinement.

But former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez told The CITY that “providing slightly over two hours a day of meaningful social contact would constitute a bad faith interpretation of the purpose of the Nelson Mandela rules.” 

“The Nelson Mandela rules used to be called the standard minimum rules for some reason,” added Méndez, a Human Rights Law professor at the American University Washington College of Law. “They’re a minimum. They’re not a maximum.… And in fact, states are encouraged to have much more general rules than that bare minimum that the Nelson Mandela rules imply.”

Activities like showers and solo exercise do not count toward total out-of-cell time, because they do not involve “meaningful social contact,” Méndez also noted. 

The DOC’s argument also does not ring true to those who have served time at Rikers.

“You could say you don’t have solitary, you might want to call it by another name,” Sabur  said.  “I would say to anybody, to the commissioner of corrections, to anybody on the Board of Correction, to the mayor, the deputy mayor, anybody making these decisions, any member of the City Council: Spend a day in solitary confinement — and I mean, literally locked in — go to a jail or a prison and spend a day and then tell me that 20 hours is not considered solitary confinement.”