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Expand Solitary Confinement to 17 Hours, City Jails Commissioner Asks Board, Citing Violence

Correction Department Commissioner Louis Molina wants to keep people in punitive segregation locked in their cells for longer — even as Rikers reformers are looking to end the practice entirely.

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DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testifies at a City Council hearing on solitary confinement, Sept. 28, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city’s jails commissioner has asked to lock some detainees down for 17 hours a day, up from the current 10 hours, as punishment, citing a spike in slashings at one facility on Rikers Island — just two weeks after a heated City Council hearing on a bill that would ban solitary confinement entirely. 

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina on Tuesday submitted the so-called variance request for people inside the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC) on Rikers to the Board of Correction, which oversees the department. 

The facility houses detainees “most prone to violence” and “has accounted for nearly half of all slashing and stabbing incidents on Rikers,” since June 1, according to Molina’s letter to the board published online Thursday. 

There have been 76 slashings there over that period, the request said, noting that all other facilities combined had just 80 similar attacks. Only 15% of the entire jail population is housed at GRVC, which has a capacity of approximately 1,300 detainees, according to the Department of Correction. 

A major spike occurred over the past weekend, Molina said, with nine detainee slashings and stabbings, with only two at other facilities. 

The Board of Correction is expected to vote on Molina’s request at its monthly meeting scheduled for Tuesday. Amanda Masters, the board’s executive director, declined to comment. 

The request comes as city jails have seen the deaths of 16 detainees this year and a growing chorus of inmate advocates, criminal justice reformers and politicians are urging the federal judge overseeing the DOC to appoint a “receiver” to take over the system. 

Chief District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of Manhattan federal court, has given Molina until November to implement his action plan before she assesses the results. 

On Thursday, City Comptroller Brad Lander added his voice to the crowd, saying at a criminal justice panel and then tweeting that “with some trepidation,” he came to the conclusion that a receiver should be appointed.

New York’s jails have been under the oversight of a federal court-appointed monitor as a result of the 2011 case Nunez vs. City of New York, filed by the Legal Aid Society and later joined by the Manhattan U.S. attorney.

On Tuesday, Molina noted that his proposal to limit cell out-of-time at GRVC is supported by the federal monitor, Steve Martin. 

The Opposite Direction

The attempt to increase solitary confinement on Rikers comes 15 days after the City Council held a heated hearing on a bill lawmakers say would “ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails.” 

“The abusive use of solitary confinement has been shown by data and study after study to be ineffective at both reducing violence by individuals and increasing safety across correctional facilities,” said City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (D-Queens), who supports the bill,  at the start of the Sept. 28 hearing. 

Queens Councilmember Tiffany Cabán speaks at a protest outside Rikers Island after a detainee died, Feb. 28, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Molina’s proposal to widen the use of solitary confinement, which the department calls punitive segregation, was slammed by one Council member leading the charge to eliminate the punishment. 

“We have to stop leaning into failed strategies,” said City Council member Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender whose Queens district includes Rikers Island, told THE CITY Thursday. “We know what reduces violence, we know what produces more safety.”

Inmate advocates and jail experts contend that solitary confinement can be replaced by larger holding areas where the detainees are given intense counseling and provided with added mental health care.

Extreme isolation behind bars causes long term health issues, especially for teens and young adults, according to expert research. Studies have also shown that Black and Hispanic detainees are more likely to be thrown in solitary than their white counterparts.

‘A Far Cry’

Molina contends that reducing out-of-cell time to just seven hours a day “is not unreasonable” and “is a far cry from solitary confinement.” He noted that several other cities in the country allow less time out for so-called punitive segregation. For instance, Philadelphia allows five hours, as does Washington, D.C.,  Cook County, Ill.s, allows six hours.

Molina also said his proposal would not violate new state regulations known as the HALT Act, although he didn’t elaborate. The legislation, signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in March of last year, limits the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 days in a row.  

The unions representing jail officers and supervisors have long maintained that the use of solitary is a key tool to keeping people safe behind bars. 

A “punitive segregation unit” inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.

Courtesy of the Department of Correction

“I think it’s a good idea, it could potentially help, and it’s less time for them to hurt people and create havoc,” Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association told THE CITY. 

“Molina has limited resources to try to bring that jail under control,” he added. “In general, restricting problematic prisoners helps in reducing violence and it has been proven over many years.” 

The correction unions have joined forces with Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens), who in February re-introduced a bill to allow the city jails to put people 18 to 21 years old in “punitive segregation” in cases where other therapeutic efforts have not worked. 

The use of solitary on that young population was banned by the Board of Correction during former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term in office.  

The proposed legislation has garnered close to no support from other city lawmakers and has little chance of passing.  

“Without punitive segregation, it is impossible to address violence in the jails, as many inmates are violent gang members,” Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the New York City Correction Captains’ Association, said in support of the bill when it was first introduced. 

The call to strictly limit or end solitary confinement in New York rocketed to the forefront of the criminal justice reform conversation following the death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman.

In June 2020, de Blasio invoked her name as he vowed to end the use of solitary confinement. 

Near the end of his administration, the Board of Correction spent more than a year developing a new alternative-to-solitary. Their Risk Management Accountability System called for fenced-in units that have more space for detainees to walk around.

It was supposed to launch last November at GRVC but has been repeatedly delayed due to lack of staff, with more than 1,000 correction officers calling out sick daily.

In June, Molina put the system’s rollout on hold, citing staffing issues and increased violence. 

Separately in 2021, a majority of City Council co-sponsored a bill to eliminate solitary confinement. But that legislation never passed despite former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson repeatedly expressing alleged support. 

Over the past decade, the city has also been slow to expand specialized units for people with mental illness. 

A de Blasio-era plan to increase the number of those housing areas has stalled with no timeline from the Adams administration, even as the mayor’s new public safety plan purports to have a heavy focus on psychiatric help, THE CITY reported last February. 

During visits to Rikers, Cabán said detainees frequently tell her that they have asked jail staff to move them into a different housing unit because of safety concerns. 

But they don’t get moved until they get slashed or a big fight breaks out, she said. 

“That’s an issue of gross mismanagement,” she said, “and there’s lot of different ways the Department of Correction can ensure the safety of the people there.”

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