The de Blasio administration is defying the city’s jails watchdog by insisting on punishing young adults by locking them in solitary cells for up to 17 hours a day and shackling some of them to desks during their brief time out. 

The city’s emergency petition to keep the youths in the restrictive housing units comes nearly eight months after Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to end the practice for all inmates following the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco on Rikers Island. 

Last summer, de Blasio promised a working group would give him recommendations on how to end solitary “in the fall.” But proposed changes, which have not been made public, have been stuck in review by the city’s Law Department for weeks. 

Meanwhile, the city’s Board of Correction, which makes the rules for the city’s lockups, recently denied a request by the Correction Department to allow approximately 20 young adults to be placed in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Units at Rikers. 

Jail officials argued that the only way to keep inmates and staff safe is to house youths who misbehave in the lockdown units, which were created as a substitute for solitary confinement in 2015. 

But the units were never supposed to include young people ages 18 to 21, spurring jail officials to notch multiple exemptions, known as a “variances,” from the board since July 2016. That’s allowed jail officials to keep shipping young adults into those units if they get violent or repeatedly fail to follow officer orders. 

Youths in the units are given added educational programming and counseling, and are supposed to be visited by medical staff everyday. 

“For the few young adults who engage in egregious acts of violence or persistent violent behavior while in the department’s custody, ESH remains one of the few housing options available that affords targeted and meaningful programming support in a structured environment,” Correction Department Commissioner Cynthia Brann wrote in a letter to the board before the meeting earlier this month. 

But no board member voted in favor of granting another extension for six months during the most recent meeting, held Feb. 9. 

A Show of Anger

The denial angered Brann, who slammed her pen down seconds after the vote failed due to zero support. 

“You understand what this does, right?” she was then overheard asking a colleague sitting behind her in a department conference room. 

In an end-run around the board, the Correction Department filed an “emergency variance declaration” Tuesday. The petition says that an “emergency situation” requires the department to keep the young adults in the specialized units. It gives the department 24 hours to continue the practice. 

The move infuriated inmate advocates and defense lawyers. 

“It’s an abuse of the process calling it an emergency,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of The Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project. 

Criminal justice reform advocates rally outside Washington Height’s Edgecombe Correctional Facility, Feb. 8, 2021. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The group is urging the board to issue a violation against the department. If the board agrees, it will send a formal letter to the department indicating that it’s in violation of the minimum standards, the local rules that govern conditions in city jails. The move would be mostly symbolic as there is no penalty. 

“While we recognize the department’s challenge managing violence in the jails, the Department’s response must adhere to the Minimum Standards,” said board executive director Meg Egan. “We will continue to work with the city and the department to ensure compliance with our rules.”

In 2017, the board said the department was violating regulations by shackling young adults in the specialized units to restraint desks by ankle cuffs during their seven-hour daily lockout. Department officials shortly afterwards created a policy to reduce, and record, the use of the restraint desks. Inmate advocates want their use eliminated. 

As for the latest emergency petition, one inmate advocate was surprised the department has circumvented the board. 

“We knew Brann was furious and we braced ourselves awaiting her retaliation,” said Grace Price, founder of the Close Rosie’s campaign, which seeks to shut the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s lockup on Rikers. “But never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined she would attempt to keep the unit open for young adults by merely asserting emergency 24-hr declarations every day.”  

Shackled to Desks

Some young adults in the units are shackled to desks during their time out of their cells. The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest defense group, and advocates have called for an end to that practice, arguing it causes long term harm. 

In 2017, a Board of Correction report found that many of the teens held in the unit were not regularly seen by clinicians despite suffering from serious mental health disorders. 

Since the pandemic locked the city down in March, all in-person programs and educational classes in the unit have stopped, according to Brann. The department replaced those with “self-guided programming packets with workbooks and evidence-based worksheets,” she said. 

Before the board vote, advocates expressed their frustration at the extended timeline to eliminate solitary confinement. 

“Right now, in our communities, it feels like this process for rule making has been tainted,” said Brandon Holmes, an inmate advocate. “The mayor made this grandiose announcement…and we have waited and waited and waited…to see these changes happen.” 

He urged the board to make the proposed rules to eliminate solitary confinement and to stop granting variances.

“People’s loved ones continue to die in our city jails,” he said. “And we continue to give exceptions, or variances, to make up for the shortcomings of the Department of Corrections.” 

Kimberly Joyce, a Law Department spokesperson, said: “As required by law, the Law Department will certify the rule when it has completed its careful review.” 

Research shows that extreme isolation behind bars causes long term health issues, especially for teens and young adults. Inmate advocates contend that solitary confinement can be replaced by larger holding areas where the detainees are given intense counselling and provided with added mental health care. 

“This is not a punishment organization,” said board member Dr. Robert Cohen. “It’s a security organization. It has to keep people safe. Shackling inmates for months at a time is cruel and inhumane.”