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City Lawmakers Drag Feet on Solitary Confinement Ban After Campaign Promises

The City Council has still not introduced any measure to end solitary confinement in city jails despite a majority of members publicly opposing the practice. The public advocate’s office meanwhile has taken up the mantle and says a bill will be introduced in weeks.

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Family members and advocates call for the end of solitary confinement during a march from Manhattan Criminal Court on the anniversary of Layleen Polanco’s death, June 7, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Months into the legislative session, the City Council has still not introduced a measure that would end solitary confinement in city jails, a priority that most members of the new-look lawmaking body vowed to address when they ran for election last year.   

The legislative process frequently takes time but the latest hold up has activists frustrated and questioning the determination and priorities of new lawmakers. 

“They don’t care,” said Melania Brown, whose sister, Layleen Polanco, died in a solitary cell at Rikers Island on June 7, 2019. “It feels like a slap in the face. My sister means nothing to them.”

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.

In June 2020, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio cited her passing after a seizure as he vowed to end the use of solitary confinement. Separately, the City Council moved forward with a bill to eliminate the punishment. But that legislation never passed despite former City Council Speaker Corey Johnson repeatedly expressing support. 

The slow moving legislation to ban solitary comes as Mayor Eric Adams, who has close ties to the union representing city correction officers, has vowed to bring back solitary confinement for detainees who slash or attack others. 

“Enjoy the reprieve now!” the former police captain told reporters in late December as he announced his new correction commissioner, Louis Molina.

There were 41 people in so-called punitive segregation and 167 people in other restrictive housing units as of Wednesday, according to the Correction Department. 

“It’s inhumane what’s going on Rikers Island,” Brown told THE CITY Wednesday. 

Research shows that extreme isolation behind bars causes long term health issues, especially for teens and young adults. 

In the city jail system, studies have also shown that Black and Hispanic detainees are more likely to be thrown in solitary.

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.

Priorities Deferred

On March 10, the City Council voted on the first legislative item of the new year to essentially extend the city’s Rent Stabilization Law. The Council also voted that same day to extend automatic renewal of property tax exemptions for senior citizen homeowners and those with disabilities, and passed a resolution expressing support for Ukraine.

But the proposal to ban solitary confinement remains in limbo despite support from at least 29 mainly new City Council members and the Speaker Adrienne Adams (D-Queens). 

“Solitary confinement is considered by the United Nations, human rights organizations, and medical and mental health experts to be a form of torture,” the incoming Council members said in a letter to Mayor Adams days before he took office. 

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at a rally for then-mayoral candidate Eric Adams near Brooklyn Borough Hall, Oct. 22, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Meanwhile, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said he and his staff are in the process of drafting a new version of a bill to ban solitary confinement and promised it would be introduced in the coming weeks.

“Solitary confinement is torture — an abuse for all, a death sentence for some, and the practice has no place in our city,” Williams said in a statement to THE CITY. “With a new City Council, we’re continuing to work with leadership to introduce, hear, and pass the bill to abolish it. We’re eager to finally, truly, ban solitary in New York.”

As public advocate, Williams can introduce legislation but doesn’t have the power to vote. City Council officials declined to explain why Williams, who is running for governor, was tapped to introduce the legislation as opposed to a Council member. 

The bill’s previous lead sponsor, Daniel Dromm, was term-limited out of his Council seat in Queens. 

‘Unstable and Unsafe’

The new measure will include a ban on what city lawmakers describe as a hybrid version of solitary where detainees are placed in larger cells with space to roam around, people familiar with the public advocate’s bill said. 

The de Blasio administration proposed those types of fenced-in units as part of its broader new Risk Management Accountability System, which was supposed to go into place last November. 

But former Mayor Bill de Blasio postponed its implementation, citing a lack of staff to handle required security posts with more than 1,000 correction officers still calling out sick daily. 

Mayor Adams has signed emergency executive orders every week to further delay the new system. 

Criminal justice reformers have slammed the mayor’s orders, which circumvent the new rules put in place by the city’s Board of Correction, the jail oversight body. 

“It’s not good for the board or the city. New York City jails need oversight now more than ever,” said Board of Correction member Dr. Robert Cohen. 

Molina said the Risk Management Accountability System is scheduled to be implemented by July 1. 

Under his version of the plan, the dayroom areas will mirror general population housing areas with an open format, including tables and chairs, for congregation during out of cell time with staff supervision. 

It will also include a minimum of five hours of daily activity with counselors, social workers, intervention specialists, community providers, arts coordinator and a recreation director.

“We are committed to being the national leader in reform of punitive segregation, and have revised the Risk Management Accountability System plan to reflect the vision of the new administration,” the commissioner told THE CITY in a statement. 

The battle over solitary confinement comes as the federal monitor overseeing the Correction Department filed a special report Wednesday. 

“The first few months of 2022 have revealed the jails remain unstable and unsafe for both inmates and staff,” the 78-page report said. 

The department “is trapped in a state of persistent dysfunctionality” that makes it difficult to make basic reforms, the report added. 

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has long opposed any limitations — even for people with mental health issues — to solitary confinement. The union contends that separating detainees who act out is the only way to keep jails safe. 

A City Council to ban solitary confinement was expected to be passed at the end of the last legislative session. But then-Council Speaker Johnson, who repeatedly said he supported the measure, blocked the bill from being introduced, according to multiple lawmakers. 

New Speaker Adams, whose mother was a correction officer, said she similarly opposes solitary confinement but declined to discuss the legislation being drafted. 

She noted the Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice will be holding its preliminary budget hearing on the Department of Correction next week and an oversight hearing on reducing violence in city jails during the following week. 

“Legislation will continue to be introduced, with the goal to effectively advance oversight and improve city agencies, but we’re not going to comment on legislation that hasn’t yet been introduced,” the speaker’s spokesperson, Mandela Jones, told THE CITY.

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