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At the Last Minute, City Officials Put Brakes on Alternative to Solitary Confinement at Rikers

A new ‘Risk Management and Accountability System’ was all set to go, but following criticism from a federal monitor and reporting by THE CITY, the changes are on hold.

SHARE At the Last Minute, City Officials Put Brakes on Alternative to Solitary Confinement at Rikers

Correction officers stand guard while Mayor Eric Adams tours Rikers Island, June 22, 2022.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The city’s embattled Department of Correction is once again delaying its highly anticipated plan to limit the use of solitary confinement, THE CITY has learned.  

The changes — which would give detainees a minimum of 10 hours outside their cell each day — were set to start inside the all-male George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island on July 1, according to a memo sent to city jail medical staff earlier this week obtained by THE CITY. 

Late Thursday, however, the federal monitor overseeing the department strongly urged the city to postpone the plan, saying it “poses significant safety concerns.”

The monitor questioned the department’s ability to imminently implement the proposed new rules Risk Management Accountability System and decried the lack of staff and proper training needed to care for detainees with serious needs.

Shortly after the court filing — and about 30 minutes after the original version of this article was published, highlighting concerns with RMAS — Correctional Health Services, which oversees medical care for detainees, told staff the new plan had come to a screeching halt, according to a second email obtained by THE CITY.  

“We have just been informed by DOC that implementation of the Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS) scheduled to begin tomorrow is being delayed. All current Enhanced Security Housing protocols and procedures remain in place,” the email read, referring to solitary units.

The roller-coaster decision comes two days after Correction Commissioner Louis Molina vowed the department was ready to implement the new tiered system. 

“Our goal is to begin RMAS on July 1 and we are working toward that goal,” Correction Commissioner Molina testified during a City Council hearing on Tuesday. 

It also comes after the key elements and the rollout of the new system were criticized by everyone from defense lawyers to the unions representing jail officers. It also comes more than three years after Layleen Polanco’s death galvanized a movement to ban the punishment. 

The alternative-to-solitary system was set to use units that are fenced-in and have more space for detainees to walk around — in a way jail officials describe as out-of-the-cell but is still enclosed.

The Risk Management Accountability System was supposed to launch last November but has been repeatedly delayed due to lack of staff, with more than 1,000 correction officers calling out sick daily.

There were 868 officers out sick on Tuesday, the lowest total since November 2020, according to Correction Department spokesperson Patrick Rocchio, who declined to detail how many additional officers were on modified duty or out because of a job related injury. 

The implementation of the new tiered system — vehemently opposed by the unions representing jail officers and supervisors — was set to come as the scandal-scarred correction department embarks on its latest reform plan to avoid a federal takeover. 

Some criminal justice reformers and jail experts have called for the federal judge overseeing a class action lawsuit against the DOC to appoint a receiver who would be given total autonomy to run the agency.

In making their case for that drastic move, they cite the nine deaths behind bars this year, hundreds of missed medical appointments and a continued spike in violence

Pushed From All Sides

The DOC’s planned rollout of the new risk management system also was set to happen days after Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced a bill in the City Council to eliminate the use of solitary confinement. And back in March, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.

That measure — which was gradually implemented across the state — bans people from being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 straight days, or 20 out of 60 days.  

But Steve Martin, the federal monitor overseeing the department, said jail officials aren’t ready to put RMAS into place. 

“The RMAS design appears to be unlikely to deliver on the core tenets of an effective model of restricted housing — to hold people accountable for violent misconduct in a safe and effective manner,” he said in a court filing. 

A “structurally restrictive area” in Rikers being used instead of solitary confinement.

Courtesy of Board of Correction

For the past six years, he said, his monitoring team has seen a pattern of “hasty, ill-planned implementation of these types of critical programs” which all “inevitably fail.”

Martin lauded the push to end solitary confinement but said the system set to launch on Friday was not a “viable program” and would also lead to “a waste of the department’s limited and critical resources.” 

Instead, he suggested the department hire jail consultant James Austin, who previously worked to create an inmate classification system.

Inmate advocates and prison medical experts meanwhile have urged Mayor Eric Adams, and his predecessor Bill de Blasio, to totally end solitary confinement. Advocates contend the punishment is torture, citing the death of Polanco.

The 27-year-old transgender woman died inside a solitary cell on June 7, 2019. Her 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 so-called punitive segregation, the official name for solitary confinement, for her role in a fight with another detainee. She was in jail for want of $500 bail as she faced misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges.

Invoking her death, in March 2021 de Blasio proposed the new system, which was panned by advocates as not going far enough.

“Far too many people have been traumatized, tortured, and lost their lives in DOC custody,  especially in solitary confinement,” said Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda and a member of the Jails Action Coalition. 

“It’s past time for the city to fully end the use of isolation and punitive practices, and implement proven alternatives involving full days out of cell with group programming and activities,” he added, urging the city to release more people from jail and close Rikers “to end this humanitarian crisis.” 

Unlike the City Council and Albany efforts to limit solitary, the new RMAS rules don’t put a strict limit on how many days an inmate could spend in the new fenced in units. 

‘Incentivize Good Behavior’

Under the system the DOC wanted to roll out on Friday, jail supervisors would have been able to seek extensions in seven-day increments. But those extensions would have to be tied to some “specific, documented intelligence or information that the person poses a serious threat to safety if they were to leave that level,” according to the new rules. 

Detainees would also receive a minimum of five hours of educational or social programming and be allowed to socialize with one other inmate in an infirmary area on Rikers. 

And jail officials would have to give inmates “written notice detailing the charges against them.” Detainees will also be 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. 

Some legal advocates who supported the right to counsel part of the new system were worried how the Correction Department will implement that. 

“There’s a lot of questions that remain of how this is going to play out,” said Julia Solomons, senior policy social workers for the Bronx Defenders.

She noted that jail officials have long struggled to make sure detainees are actually brought to courthouses throughout the five boroughs. One day last September, only 34 out of 52 incarcerated people with scheduled proceedings at Queens Criminal Court showed up, THE CITY reported

Inmate advocates also contend that the free time in the new RMAS units is really just the ability to walk around a fenced-in indoor porch. 

“I’m in a rage that they keep using my sister’s name in vain with no real change,” Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, told THE CITY after the rules were announced in March 2021. “All they did was change the name, and slightly, very slightly, changed a few things.” 

The system’s pushback is the latest in a long line of delays. 

It was initially postponed by former Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Mayor Eric Adams has continued to sign emergency executive orders every week to further delay it. 

The new rules were created by the city’s Board of Correction, which has oversight over the DOC. 

“Model is meant to be restorative and incentivize good behavior,” the original RMAS PowerPoint announcing the July 1 implementation sent to jail medical staff read.

Inmate advocates contend that the free time in the new units is really just the ability to walk around a fenced-in indoor porch. 

“The last time we saw photos of the new units there was outcry because the recreational areas were just cages,” said Grace Price, the founder of the Close Rosie’s campaign, advocating for the shuttering of the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers, which houses only women. 

The new rules also require jail staff to bring detainees who act out to so-called de-escalation cells where they are put to cool off. 

“That works really well,” said a health professional who works in the city jail system who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

As for the overall plan, the health professional was skeptical that correction officers and their bosses would actually implement the changes. 

Criminal justice reform activists call for a plan to end the use of solitary confinement during a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Oct. 21, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Any kind of reform staggers,” the medical insider said, noting officers often make up excuses for ignoring new regulations. 

The Legal Aid Society, the city’s largest public defender group, slammed the lack of communication from jail officials about how they planned to put the new system in place. 

“On the eve of implementation, the city has yet to provide defenders with directives or policies for concepts central to RMAS, like legal representation in disciplinary hearings,” said Legal Aid Society spokesperson Redmond Haskins. 

“We are gravely concerned that the city’s delays will cause our clients to linger in a reflexively punitive and isolating system that cannot meet their fundamental human needs,” he added. 

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.

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