Adolescent Prisoners at Rikers Island No Longer Placed in Solitary
On January 13, 2015, the New York City Board of Correction (BOC) voted unanimously to end solitary confinement for prisoners 21 years old and under in the city’s jail system.
Buckling under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the BOC ended the segregation of prisoners for up to 23 hours a day for adolescents age 18 and under, and the practice is slated to end on January 1, 2016 for those age 18 to 21. The latter rule change is dependent on whether “sufficient resources are made available to the Department for necessary staffing and implementation of necessary alternative programming.”
The DOJ had issued a scathing report in August 2014 that called the use of “punitive segregation for adolescent inmates” at the Rikers Island jail “excessive and inappropriate.” Juveniles make up approximately 14% of the city’s jail population.
During a roundtable session at New York City Hall in December 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio cited changes that had already been put in place, such as the jail system’s “second chance” housing option for adolescents currently held in solitary and a “Transitional Repair Unit” where prisoners are given time to calm down and then returned to general population. Working with Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Joseph Ponte, the mayor had already proposed an end to segregation for prisoners age 18 and under.
Further, the BOC ruled that the city’s jail system is prohibited from placing severely mentally ill prisoners and physically disabled prisoners in punitive segregation. It also decreased the amount of time any prisoner could be sentenced to solitary confinement from 90 days to 30 days. Under the new rules only the most unmanageable, violent prisoners found guilty of “persistent acts of violence” may be sent to solitary for more than 60 days within a six-month period.
Before the reforms it was common practice for Rikers to confine dozens of juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement for three to six months. Research has consistently shown that segregation can have serious negative effects on a prisoner’s mental health, and a DOJ study found that over 50% of in-custody adolescent suicides occurred in solitary confinement. Further, juveniles placed in solitary were more likely to harm themselves than adult prisoners.
The BOC also authorized the creation of an Enhanced Supervision Housing unit as an alternative to solitary confinement. The special unit will hold 250 of the jail system’s most unruly prisoners in a “non-punitive” setting at a cost of $14.8 million. Only specially-trained guards will be assigned to supervise the unit, and cell restrictions will be individually assessed according to a prisoner’s particular situation. Staff will receive training on how to recognize signs of mental illness.
The self-contained Enhanced Supervision Housing unit will include a law library, medical clinic and chaplains. Mayor de Blasio applauded the rule changes, saying they would “lead to a safer more humane system.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the new rules “a major step forward” that will place Rikers Island “at the forefront of national jail reform efforts.”
Norman Seabrook, president of the DOC guards’ union, opposed the changes, saying, “I think it becomes a cat-and-mouse game of what this inmate can get away with. Now he knows that he can do whatever he wants to do.”
But Seabrook’s naysaying will likely have little effect on the trending reforms taking place in the city’s jails. According to a recent news report, from April 2014 to March 2015 the number of prisoners held in segregation in New York City’s jail system had been reduced by almost a third – to an average of 506 – compared to an average of 743 a year earlier.
“From eliminating punitive segregation for adolescents to Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) for the mentally ill, we are taking strong steps to move from punitive models toward rehabilitative programming and therapeutic alternatives,” Commissioner Ponte stated.
However, The Marshall Project, an independent news agency that focuses on criminal justice issues, reported in June 2015 that staff at Rikers had found a way to circumvent the new solitary confinement rules. Juvenile prisoners are still being given terms in solitary, but the terms are designated “owed time” that they will have to serve after they turn 18. In a May 22, 2015 letter, BOC member Bryanne Hamill reportedly confirmed that some juveniles held in DOC facilities had received stints in solitary they will have to serve after they become adults and enter the jail’s general population.
A DOC spokesperson denied that “suspended” terms in segregation were being imposed.
Sources: www.newsday.com, Washington Post, The New York Times, www.observer.com, www.themarshallproject.org
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