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De Blasio Plan to Eliminate Solitary Confinement Falls Short for Inmate Advocates

A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday his highly anticipated plan to “end” solitary confinement — but some inmate advocates, including Layleen Polanco’s sister, charge the overhaul doesn’t go far enough.

Inmates in so-called punitive segregation would get a minimum of 10-hours outside of their cell each day under the proposed “risk management accountability system,” with a three-tiered “progression model.”

Detainees would also receive a minimum of five hours of programming and be allowed to socialize with one other inmate in an infirmary area on Rikers Island. But the proposed new rules, which must be approved by the city’s Board of Correction, don’t put a limit on how many days an inmate could spend in punitive segregation.

“We are making good on our commitment to ban solitary confinement altogether, creating jails that are fundamentally smaller, safer, and fairer,” the mayor said in a statement Monday.

In June, de Blasio promised he would eliminate solitary, citing the case of 27-year-old Polanco, who died alone in a cell on Rikers Island just over a year earlier.

She had epilepsy and schizophrenia, according to her family, and was placed in isolation despite restrictions on inmates with serious medical and psychological conditions.

On Monday, Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, slammed the proposed new rules.

“I’m in a rage that they keep using my sister’s name in vain with no real change,” Brown said. “All they did was change the name, and slightly, very slightly, changed a few things.”

Dr. Robert Cohen, a Board of Correction member who is frequently critical of the department, hailed the proposed changes.

“I was on the rulemaking committee,” he said. “I think it’s a tremendous advance. Everyone will be out of their cell a bunch of hours a day and won’t have to bang on their doors to get attention.”

In Name Only

Still, Cohen and inmates-rights advocates are opposed to having people housed in cage-like cells instead of more spacious units.

They are also against allowing jail officials to keep people in the unit indefinitely. Inmates will not be able to have a lawyer or advocate argue on their behalf before they are sent to the punishment unit.

“It feels like they are ending solitary in name only,” said Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project.

Parish and others are also concerned about the quality of programming the people in the unit will get.

“They don’t seem to have specific criteria,” she said. “In the past they’ve just taken pages out of workbooks.”

Surveillance video shows Layleen Polanco being escorted to her solitary cell on Rikers Island before being found unresponsive in June of 2019.
Surveillance video shows Layleen Polanco being escorted to her solitary cell on Rikers Island before being found unresponsive in June of 2019.
Screengrab/Department of Correction Surveillance Video

Meanwhile, the union representing correction officers is vehemently opposed to any limitations to solitary confinement, calling the proposal a “reckless” move that will endanger “thousands of officers.”

The mayor has ignored his own reports that show increases in violence behind bars, said Benny Boscio Jr., president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

“There’s a reason no other jail system in the country has eliminated punitive segregation and that’s because doing so is a recipe for disaster,” he added.

Levels of Punishment

Supporters of the new rules point out that an adjudication system overseen by a jail captain will decide whether an inmate should be punished. Advocates want the accused to either have a lawyer, or a jailhouse advocate, to argue on their behalf.

Solitary confinement is currently only supposed to be used as a punitive measure in response to an infraction of jail rules.

A jail captain in charge of adjudicating jailhouse infractions can dole out a sentence of up to 30 days “in the box” or “bing.” A detainee in punitive segregation gets at most seven hours out of their cell.

But under the new proposal, inmates could remain in the punishment unit indefinitely, with three “levels” of how much time they get out of the cell, varying from 10 to 14 hours.

The proposed rules call for inmates in the most stringent Level 1 to shift to the lower tier after 60 days unless they commit a violent infraction. The proposed rules say people should not be held in the next two levels for more than 15 days barring extenuating circumstances.

“There’s still the potential to be in very isolative conditions for a very long time,” Parish said.

‘Absolutely Terrific’

Still, Bryanne Hamill, a former Board of Corrections member who led the charge to end solitary confinement, called the proposed rules “absolutely terrific.”

Hamill, a retired family court judge, pointed out that the mayor’s plan would eliminate the use of so-called restraint desks where some young adults have their legs shackled during their few hours out of their cells.

“That was cruel and inhuman punishment, just like solitary confinement,” she said, adding the city has also agreed to finally end the co-mingling of young adults with adult inmates.

At the end of last month, the Correction Department began to defy the Board of Correction by insisting on punishing the approximately 20 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.

As for the broader proposed changes, the new system could be in place by Nov. 1, according to the city’s press release. The Board of Correction will formally introduce the changes at its meeting on Tuesday and will hold online public hearings on April 13 and April 14.

The board, which oversees city jails, is set to next meet on Tuesday.

“The next 30 days,” Cohen said, “are very important.”

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