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Melania Brown blasts Mayoral Bill de Blasio for failing to end solitary confinement during a protest march from Manhattan Criminal Court on the two-year anniversary of her sister Layleen Polanco’s death, June 7, 2021.
Melania Brown blasts Mayoral Bill de Blasio for failing to end solitary confinement during a protest march from Manhattan Criminal Court on the two-year anniversary of her sister Layleen Polanco’s death on Monday.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Solitary Confinement Reforms Approved for City Jails, Even as Advocates Decry ‘Broken Promise’

(This story has been updated to reflected the passage of the new rules.)

Two years and a day after Layleen Polanco’s death on Rikers Island galvanized a movement to ban solitary confinement, the city Board of Correction on Tuesday approved new rules the de Blasio administration says will effectively end the practice in city jails.

But the highly anticipated changes, which will give detainees a minimum of 10-hours outside their cell each day, were strenuously opposed by advocates — including Polanco’s sister — who contend the new regulations don’t go far enough.

“The mayor made my family a promise that he would end solitary confinement,” Melania Brown said Monday, after a demonstration marking the second anniversary of her sister’s death. “But he has broken that promise.”

Brown and others are now calling on the City Council to enact legislation to fully abolish a practice many experts deem torture.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012
Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012.
Facebook

Meanwhile, officials revealed Tuesday that limited jailhouse visits will resume on June 25. Visits and all programming, ranging from everything from drug counseling to in-person classes for detainees in high school, have been cancelled since the start of the pandemic last spring.

The department reopened barbershop and beauty salon services on Monday, according to jail officials. Congregate religious services will resume on June 17.

Limited visits will be allowed Wednesdays through Fridays, with tele-visits on Saturdays and Sundays, jail records show. Visitors will be required to register via the department’s website where a link will be added soon.

The city plans to use “structurally restrictive areas” in the North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island instead of solitary confinement.
The city plans to use “structurally restrictive areas” in the North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island instead of solitary confinement.
Courtesy of Board of Correction

Tuesday’s unanimous vote by the Board of Correction on reforming solitary confinement came three months after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS) plan to stop using isolation as a punishment for inmates who act out.

The plan now calls for a two-tiered “progression model” depending on the severity of the offense. Those accused of something serious, like slashing someone, will be put in the higher tier.

Most people will 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.

Safety ‘Without Torture’

But the new rules don’t put a strict limit on how many days an inmate could spend in so-called punitive segregation. Inmate advocates also contend that the free time is really just the ability to walk around a fenced-in indoor porch.

Under the new rules, okayed during the board’s monthly meeting, detainees will 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 advocates contend that programming can take place inside the cell.

The changes were voted on just over two years after Polanco died inside a solitary cell on Rikers. The 27-year-old transgender woman’s June 7, 2019, death accelerated a national push to end the punishment behind bars.

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.

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.
Screengrab/Department of Correction Surveillance Video

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, Brown and other advocates marched with a casket from Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre St. to City Hall. Brown argued de Blasio’s reforms are merely a gussied up version of solitary confinement.

“All I have left is my sister around my neck in ashes,” she said.

In a statement issued after the march, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams declared, “I believe we can keep people safe without torture.”

“Instead of fixing it so people are treated like human beings, leadership wants to put people in solitary confinement and torture them,” he added.

‘Until My Last Breath’

The Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, has made some changes to the initially proposed rules based on feedback from the public.

The original proposal called for a three-tier system in which inmates in the most stringent Level 1 would shift to the lower tier after 60 days unless they commit a violent infraction.

Under the new rules, jail officials must give inmates “written notice detailing the charges against them.” Detainees are also entitled to a disciplinary hearing where they can be represented by a lawyer or another advocate who can call witnesses.

“The department has the burden of proof in all disciplinary proceedings, and a person’s guilt must be shown by a preponderance of the evidence,” the rules state.

Family and advocates called for the ending of solitary confinement during a march from Manhattan Criminal Court on the anniversary of Layleen Polanco’s death, June 7, 2021.
Family and advocates marched from Manhattan Criminal Court to City Hall.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

During the public comment period, numerous advocates urged the Board to add that option for people before they are put in the disciplinary cells. Other jails throughout the country permit lawyers or hearing advisors to help incarcerated people investigate their cases.

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

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has long opposed any changes making it harder for officers to put people in solitary confinement. The union contends the punishment is necessary to keep people safe.

Still, Polanco’s sister vowed to keep pushing for more drastic changes.

“You will not use my sister’s name in vain,” Brown said. “If I have to fight until my last breath to end solitary confinement, I will do that to get justice for my sister.”

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