New City Council Legislation To Address Solitary Confinement In NYC
At a press conference on April 9 Councilmember Daniel Dromm introduced a bill and a resolution addressing solitary confinement in New York City jails. Council members were joined by advocates from the NYC Jails Action Coalition, who called on the Board of Correction to adopt rules regulating the use of solitary confinement, also known as “punitive segregation.”
Contrary to the national trend toward reducing the harmful use of isolation in jails and prisons, the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) expanded its punitive segregation capacity 27% in 2011, and another 44% percent in 2012. This expansion has left NYC with one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country. In fact, the DOC has more punitive segregation cells than it did in the 1990s, when it housed many thousands more people than it does today.
The bill introduced today requires the comprehensive reporting of data on punitive segregation. The second measure is a resolution calling for the end of the practice of placing individuals returning to jail into punitive segregation to complete time owed from the previous period of incarceration.
A growing consensus among lawyers, human rights activists, public officials, and the formerly incarcerated is questioning the widespread use solitary confinement. New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, the bills’ lead sponsor, said, “I agree with the experts that solitary confinement should rarely, if ever, be used. When I toured Rikers Island last year, I saw the conditions under which inmates are exposed. It is not a surprise that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has highlighted the inefficacy and inhumanity of solitary confinement and called for its end.”
The DOC routinely places people in solitary confinement in response to a variety of infractions. If passed and enacted, this legislation will require the Department of Correction to provide information on the number of people in punitive segregation, the length of time in this setting, and the nature of infractions. Additional reporting requirements include age, mental health, violence against self and others, and inmate requests.
The NYC Jails Action Coalition (JAC) also called on the Board of Correction to adopt minimum standards regarding solitary confinement. The Board of Correction, which operates independently of City Council oversight, sets standards for incarceration conditions. If adopted, JAC’s proposed rules would prohibit DOC from placing people with mental and physical disabilities, juveniles, and young people in isolated confinement; limit the reasons for which a person can be placed in isolated confinement so that it is only used as a last resort to prevent violent conduct; and increase the amount of daily out-of-cell time for those placed in isolated confinement.
“Punitive segregation, the involuntary confinement of incarcerated people in cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, causes serious physical, psychological, and developmental harm and cannot be justified,” said Jennifer Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project, and member of JAC. “Punitive segregation fosters violence in DOC facilities and exacerbates threats to institutional security. The Board must act quickly to end the harmful effects of punitive segregation and to reduce current endemic violence in DOC facilities.”
"Punitive segregation is recognized as being extremely damaging," said Sarah Kerr, Staff Attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, and member of JAC. "The proposed minimum standards provide for alternatives that maintain safety in the jails through appropriate, measured, humane and effective responses."
Studies have shown the devastating impact on the mental health of people who have endured solitary confinement, even for relatively brief periods. Many of these individuals already have substance abuse and mental health issues that are exacerbated by being placed in punitive segregation without social contact; others develop such issues after experiencing solitary confinement.
“Right now my 17-year-old son is in ‘the box’ at Rikers Island. He has ADHD and impulse control problems, issues he has had since he was a child. He made a mistake and was locked up for it, but he should not be subjected to abuse while he is in jail. He was placed in ‘the box’ after a corrections captain assaulted him. I worry about how my son will be when he gets out – what effect being punched in the head and spending months alone in ‘the box’ will have on him,” said Stephanie Reyes, mother.
“As proven through research and documented by human rights groups, isolated confinement and sensory deprivation causes depression, despair, anxiety, rage,
claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and an impaired ability to think, concentrate, and remember. This is no environment for a child age 16 – or any human being in this great City of New York – to be contained for 23 hours a day for months on end. As an example to the world, we should be better than this,” said Five Mualimm-ak, civil rights advocate and organizer, and member of JAC.
“DOC puts people in isolated confinement to punish minor jail misbehavior. There is no evidence that it works but plenty of evidence that it's harmful. These rules would require a clear relationship between isolated confinement and the prevention of reasonably certain violence. It would be a last resort, not a first one,” said Richard Sawyer, JAC member and J.D. Candidate, 2013, New York University School of Law.
More than 30 organizations have called on the Board of Correction to adopt minimum standards that will:
* Limit the reasons for which a person can be placed in isolated confinement so that isolated confinement will only be used as a last resort to prevent violent conduct;
* Increase the amount of time that a person in isolated confinement is allowed to spend out of cell daily;
* Limit the number of days that a person can be held in isolated confinement;
* Exclude incarcerated people under 25 years old and people with mental or physical disabilities or serious injuries from isolated confinement;
*Require the creation of alternative safety restrictions to address violent conduct by these vulnerable populations in a therapeutic manner;
*Improve due process afforded to those at risk of being placed in isolated confinement; and
*Increase transparency by requiring DOC to report on its use of isolated confinement and alternative safety restrictions.
The following organizations have signed on in support of these principles: Association of Legal Aid Attorneys; (AFL-CIO) – UAW Local 2325; Association of Pro-Inmate Rights Neta; Bronx Defenders; Brooklyn Defenders; Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement; Campaign to End the New Jim Crow; Center for Comprehensive Care; Center for Constitutional Rights; Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Association for Public Health Action and Criminal Justice; Creating Law Enforcement and Responsibility (CLEAR) at CUNY School of Law; CUNY Law School, Criminal Defense Clinic; Five Borough Defenders; Fortune Society; Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; The Legal Aid Society; Metro NY Religious Campaign Against Torture; NAMI – East Flatbush; National Lawyers Guild; National Religious Campaign Against Torture; Neighborhood Defender Services; New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS); New York Civil Liberties Union; New York State Prisoner Justice Network; Office of Appellate Defender; Prisoners Legal Services of New York; Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD); Social Justice Committee of the
Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock; T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights; Urban Justice Center; Uri L'Tzedek; Venture House; VOCAL – NY; and Women’s Prison Association.
“We want to be able to present hard figures to the Board to compel it to end the practice immediately,” Dromm concluded. “This is a public safety issue. We cannot brutalize mentally ill and drug-addicted inmates, release them to the streets, and then expect safe communities.”