When scores of city correction officers rallied against proposed jail reforms in front of the bridge leading to Rikers Island last summer, they chanted “Bring back the box!” — referring to solitary confinement.
On Thursday, Mayor-elect Eric Adams promised to do so.
People in city jails who are violent will be put in so-called punitive segregation when he becomes mayor, Adams told reporters gathered in Brooklyn Borough Hall as he announced his new Department of Correction commissioner, Louis Molina.
“Enjoy the reprieve now!” said Adams, a former cop.
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has long fought against restrictions — like barring mentally ill people and adolescents — on the use of solitary confinement.
Adams’ close ties to Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLC, a lobbying firm that represents jail workers, has raised questions about the future of chaotic Rikers Island and the beleaguered Correction Department.
The problems at Rikers recently spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay reforms aimed at sharply limiting isolating detainees. The City Council also never followed through on plans to outlaw solitary confinement.
Inmate advocates and medical experts swiftly slammed Adams’ pronouncement on Thursday, noting that research shows isolating people for days or longer is akin to torture and can cause severe psychological harm.
“I’m disgusted by it,” said Melania Brown, whose sister, Layleen Polanco, died at Rikers on June 7, 2019.
Outgoing Jails Boss Balks
The call to strictly limit or end solitary confinment in New York rocketed to the forefront of the criminal justice reform conversation following the death of Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, insider a cell.
Jails in Denver, Colo. and Cook County, Ill., which encompasses Chicago, have strictly limited the practice. Prison officials barely use it in Scandinavia, Germany, Finland and Norway. Lockups in those countries are vastly different: They have large open spaces and inmates are given loads of educational programming and counseling.
Vincent Schiraldi, the reform-minded outgoing correction commissioner, cautioned Adams about paring back limits to solitary confinement.
“I consider that potentially dangerous times,” said Schiraldi, who had hoped to retain the role.
The department needs to build an alternative to solitary confinement, he added, where detainees are provided with intense counseling, programs and added incentives to behave.
“If that’s where we are headed, that’s a fine plan,” Schiraldi said. “But just to eliminate it completely I think is a mistake. That’s not where the field is moving nationally and that’s not where we should go locally.”
De Blasio’s Long Path
Whende Blasio first took office nearly eight years ago, he announced a plan to strictly limit the use of solitary.
In 2015, his administration eliminated isolation for inmates under 22 and for people with “serious” mental illness. In addition, adult inmates can no longer spend more than 30 days in solitary at a stretch.
In 2011, during the Bloomberg era, there were close to 1,000 people in so-called punitive segregation on any given day. Some 235 people, by contrast, were in some form of restrictive housing, with 39 in punitive segregation early last month, records show.
The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest public defender organization, said Adams’ proposal to bring back solitary “throws away years of progress undoing the physical and mental harms caused by solitary confinement.”
In June 2020, de Blasio promised to eliminate the punishment, invoking the death of Polanco. The city’s Board of Correction in March announced new solitary confinement rules known as a Risk Management Accountability System.
Under the set-up, detainees who officers say broke rules would be placed in a two-tiered “progression model,” depending on the severity of the offense. People accused of something serious, like slashing someone, would be put in the higher tier.
Most detainees would be able to move through both levels “in no more than 30 days, with up to 15 days in each level,” according to the final rules published by the Board of Correction.
Inmates can be kept longer “in cases where there is specific, documented intelligence that someone poses a serious safety threat if they were to be transferred,” according to the plan.
Early last month, de Blasio signed an emergency executive order putting his plan to limit isolation on hold, citing a jail system unable to staff required security posts with approximately 1,500 correction officers calling out sick daily.
Rikers Island has been roiled by what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos,” with inmate deaths and self-harm incidents up, rampant absenteeism and low vaccination rates among officers, and bleak conditions at intake centers.
Council Misses Moment
Still, de Blasio’s delay infuriated inmate advocates who pressed the supportive city lawmakers to approve legislation barring the use of solitary confinement.
After Polanco’s death, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson decried the practice. He urged the Board of Correction to reduce the 15-day maximum to zero with “no exceptions.”
But the measure was not brought for a vote in time for the last full Council gathering of the year on Wednesday.
“It is unconscionable that with a supermajority of cosponsors in our City Council the speaker has not brought legislation to end solitary confinement to the floor for a vote,” said #HALTsolitary leader and solitary survivor Victor Pate.
“Our fellow human beings are suffering and the torture must end,” he added.
Johnson was not immediately reachable for comment.
In April, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the so-called #HaltSolitary measure barring the use of solitary in New York jails and prisons for more than 15 consecutive days starting next March. The legislation also bans that punishment for people with mental illness and other medical issues as well as minors.
‘A National Embarrassment’
Adams, during his news conference Thursday, noted that Molina will be the first Latino commissioner in the history of the Correction Department. The mayor-elect also vowed to better treat correction officers.
“Rikers Island has been a national embarrassment, and we have ignored it,” Adams told reporters. “We cannot wait. Now we must have changes on Rikers Island.”
Molina, 49, is currently the chief of a Las Vegas public safety department.
He previously served as the chief internal monitor and acting assistant commissioner on the Nunez Compliance Unit for 11 months in 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. The Nunez case is named for the lead plaintiff in the original class-action suit that spurred the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee New York City jails.
Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr., a fierce critic of Schiraldi, welcomed Molina’s appointment.
“We desperately need a proven law enforcement leader who understands the gravity of the crisis we’re in and is willing to work in collaboration with us to restore safety, security and sanity to our jails,” he said. “We are hopeful that incoming Commissioner Louis Molina shares those same goals.”