The progressive contingent of the incoming, new-look City Council launched its first shot against Mayor-elect Eric Adams on Monday, targeting his vow to bring back solitary confinement in city jails.
“Solitary confinement is considered by the United Nations, human rights organizations, and medical and mental health experts to be a form of torture,” reads a letter signed by 29 Council members and sent to Adams as he prepared to take office on Jan. 1.
Evidence shows that solitary confinement “leads to more violence” and alternatives like limited separation from the general population with full days of out-of-cell programming actually improves safety, the missive adds.
The letter, obtained by THE CITY, came four days after the incoming mayor vowed to bring back solitary confinement for detainees who act out violently amid the chaos plaguing Rikers Island.
“Enjoy the reprieve now!” the former police captain told reporters Thursday as he announced his new correction commissioner, Louis Molina.
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association hailed the announcement and the new commissioner selection, while inmate advocates and jail medical experts slammed the return to isolating detainees at Rikers and other city lockups.
The letter to Adams, signed primarily by first-time Council members, marked a preview of the dynamic between a band of rookie, mostly progressive lawmakers and a Democrat whose law enforcement background and promise of a tough-but-fair crime-fighting approach helped get him elected.
About two-thirds of the Council’s 51 seats were up for grabs in November’s election, leading an historic overhaul that includes the body’s first majority-female membership.
‘Subjected to Torture’
“As Council member for the 22nd District, I represent every single human being caged on Rikers Island,” said Tiffany Cabán, a progressive Democrat who took office Dec. 1 because she was filling a vacant seat.
“That means that any time an incarcerated person is thrown in solitary confinement, one of my constituents is being subjected to torture,” added Cabán, who first burst onto the political scene in 2019 with her near-upset victory in the Queens district attorney primary. “This practice makes us all less safe, not more. I can’t and won’t stand by silently and allow that to happen.”
A spokesperson for Adams said the mayor-elect has no intention of putting inmates who act out in 23-hour confinement with minimal human interaction.
“It’s not about punishment, it’s about correction,” said the spokesperson, Evan Thies.
“In order to address a crisis at Rikers the city must maintain a policy that it will separate violent inmates from the general population” into their own unit, he said. “That procedure must also ensure the safety and health of the inmates who are separated.”
Advocates for incarcerated people are wary of Adams’ close ties to the union via Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLC, a lobbying firm that represents jail workers.
The advocates are also carefully watching City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’ (D-Queens) position on the issue.
She was a co-sponsor on the Halt Solitary legislation, which set out to fully “ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails.” The measure, which would allow people to be put in solitary only in emergency situations, was never brought up for a full vote by outgoing Speaker Corey Johnson before the Council’s last session of the year.
Councilmember Adrienne Adams (D-Queens), whose mother served as a correction officer, also supports legislation beefing up punishments against detainees who assault primarily female officers.
On Monday, Adams, the likely next Council speaker, described the current solitary confinement setup as “inhumane,” saying it has led to a “string of tragedies for New Yorkers who often aren’t convicted of a crime.”
She also said that inmate-on-inmate assaults and inmate-on-officer violence “is a persistent threat that we must address.”
‘Heavy Handed’ Officers
A federal monitor overseeing the Correction Department noted there were nearly eight assaults on staff per day between January and September 2021.
Some of those attacks, though, came after “heavy-handed” action by officers that “needlessly escalates encounters,” according to Steve Martin, also known as the Nunez monitor, named for the lead plaintiff in the original class-action suit that spurred the oversight agreement.
The call to strictly limit or end solitary confinment in New York rocketed to the forefront of the criminal justice reform conversation following the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, inside a cell.
Over the past year, Rikers Island has been rocked 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 dire conditions at intake centers.
Some lawmakers have called for the National Guard and President Joe Biden to step in. Earlier this month, two men died at Rikers, bringing the toll for the year up to 16.
The solitary confinement issue is regulated by city law, state law, and the Board of Correction, the city jail oversight body.
In March, a set of new state rules limiting the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days takes effect under the so-called #HaltSolitary measure signed into law in April by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The measure also prohibits solitary confinement for people with mental illness and other medical issues as well as minors.
In June 2020, de Blasio promised to eliminate the punishment, invoking the death of Polanco. But he has put the board’s new Risk Management Accountability System on hold citing chaos behind bars and lack of staff to implement it.