Push to Ban Solitary in City Jails Stalls as Lawmakers Blame Staff Concerns
A majority of City Council members plus the public advocate say they want to get rid of so-called punitive segregation — but some jail staff aren’t so sure.
Over the last few years of election campaigning, several self-professed left-leaning city politicians, including many in the City Council, listed ending solitary confinement in city jails as a legislative priority — or at the very least, as something they supported.
But a proposal to do just that, introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams last June, has had only one public hearing — in September — and there’s no follow-up scheduled.
The latest hurdle, according to Williams and other elected officials: the three unions that represent health care workers on Rikers Island.
The unions, including the politically powerful 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, are worried the new rules could make it difficult for their members to regularly check on detainees put in some new type of isolation environment, multiple sources said.
Union officials say they, too, are against the use of solitary confinement — a disciplinary practice medical research has shown leads to worsening mental health, especially for younger detainees and those with mental illness. But the organizations want a binding promise to hire more health workers for the city jails.
“We are working with the Council to ensure that there are sufficient staff and security resources to implement any new requirements for rounding,” said Helen Schaub, political director of 1199 SEIU. “It is vitally important that short-staffed healthcare workers are not put into a position where they are stretched too thin to provide services to all detainees, wherever they are housed.”
Asked about health care workers’ staffing concerns, Williams said, “I think everyone is concerned about making sure they are able to do their job. And so we’ve acknowledged that.”
He added that there may be a need for “additional resources.”
‘A Bunch of Excuses’
Jail reform advocates pushing for the solitary ban are furious about the ongoing delay, noting the legislation has a veto-proof 38 co-sponsors in the 51-member body.
“I feel like it’s a whole bunch of excuses,” said Melania Brown, whose sister Layleen Polanco’s death in a solitary cell on Rikers Island in 2019 galvanized a new movement to restrict the practice.
“They are just dancing around what really needs to be done,” Brown said. “Solitary confinement is deadly.”
A bill to ban the use of solitary confinement at city lockups was first introduced in December 2020 by former City Council member Daniel Dromm of Queens.
But the legislation was never brought to a vote by former Council Speaker Corey Johnson — even though Johnson had long professed support for the measure.
Williams, who was a co-sponsor of that earlier version of the legislation when he was a Council member, defended the slow process. He noted that complicated legislation can take months to make its way through the review process.
“It’s going through the motions that I normally go through,” he told THE CITY. “I will say what is illuminating to me is how dysfunctional Rikers is.”
As public advocate, Williams can introduce legislation but doesn’t have power to vote on it. He touted how 15 bills he has introduced have become law and multiple others are making their way through the legislative process.
City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, whose district includes Rikers, declined to comment for this story.
Speaker Adrienne Adams expressed support while pointing to complexities ahead. Adams spokesperson Rendy Desamours said, “The Council is working with the bill sponsor, Public Advocate Williams, in efforts to collaborate with various stakeholders towards a shared goal of passing an effective bill that will be successfully implemented to improve safety.”
The success of the bill relies on lawmakers’ “ability to address the technical complexities within the bill language that has implications for all people in our jail system, whether they are being held or work there,” Desamours said.
Nothing to See Here?
The unions representing jail officers vehemently oppose any restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.
They contend that there is no other way to safely protect people behind bars, especially after someone slashes another person.
“You’ve got to be able to separate these guys,” said Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains’ Association. “You can’t have an inmate slash another inmate, punch an officer in the face, or worse, and then go back into the general population.”
Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and other top jail brass contend that they’ve essentially phased out the use of solitary.
“We don’t have anybody in solitary confinement here,” Molina told Gothamist last summer. “We ended punitive segregation a long time ago here in this department, and I’m real proud of that.”
The department does still use “restrictive housing,” where detainees are supposedly given seven hours out-of-cell time. That often consists of having “incarcerated individuals merely move from their living area to another caged-in space in front of their cell where they remain alone and can have some limited interaction with the person in the cell(s) next to them,” according to the Board of Correction, the city jails’ oversight body.
And some people behind bars are kept in so-called intake and de-escalation cells for days without any out-of-cell time.
Research has shown that extreme isolation behind bars can lead to 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 into 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.
On the other hand, 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!” Adams, a former NYPD captain, told reporters when he announced Molina, a former NYPD detective, as his correction commissioner, shortly before being sworn in as mayor.
The solitary confinement issue is regulated by city law, state law, and the Board of Correction.
Last March, a set of new state laws limiting the use of solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days went into effect under the “#HaltSolitary” measure signed into law in April by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The measure also prohibits solitary confinement for minors and people with mental illness and other medical issues.
But prison officials have ignored some of the new rules — and most state lawmakers failed to bring up the issue during a recent Albany hearing with state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Acting Commissioner Anthony Annucci, according to a report by New York Focus.
As for New York City, former Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2020 promised to eliminate the punishment, invoking the death of Polanco.
But the board’s new Risk Management Accountability System has been put on hold by de Blasio and Adams who have cited ongoing chaos behind bars.
Board at Work
The battle over solitary confinement comes as the Board of Correction was supposed to vote Thursday on a proposed mail and package delivery system meant to stem the tide of contraband.
The board’s meeting was canceled because the audio wasn’t working on the online stream. No new date has been set yet.
Advocates for people behind bars caution the mail system switch will trample privacy rights — and that two other states that made similar changes have seen no decrease in overdoses or drug seizures.
Also opposing the digitized mail system are 17 City Council members and city Comptroller Brad Lander.
Last month, the DOC yanked real-time video surveillance access for the Board of Correction, whose officials have slammed the new policy and are looking into possibly challenging it in court, according to a source on the panel.
The executive director of the Board of Correction, Amanda Masters, is leaving in protest by next month.
Meanwhile, the ongoing jostling over the solitary legislation has national implications, according to advocates for people behind bars.
“With widespread bipartisan public support across the country to end solitary confinement, all eyes are on New York City,” said Jessica Sandoval, director of the national Unlock the Box Campaign.
Sandoval urged City Council to pass the legislation and Adams to sign it into law.
“Doing so will not only relieve suffering, save lives, and improve safety in New York City,” she said, “but will help spur the growing momentum to end solitary in other states and localities.”