De Blasio Pledges to Limit Solitary on Rikers

Khorri Atkinson of the New York Amsterdam News reports:

Amid growing criticism from relatives of inmates and jail reformers, including the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently reported on a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that will track and limit the use of solitary confinement at the correctional facility.

The bill, Intro. 292-A, takes effect immediately and mandates the city Department of Corrections, in cooperation with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to provide four reports annually about Rikers Island inmates in solitary confinement. The reports will provide details on why and for how long inmates are in solitary confinement, whether they ever attempted suicide or were assaulted and the state of their mental health.

The reports will also include information about the use of force, jail demographics, inmate access to medical and mental health services and the number of inmates subject to enhanced restraints, such as hand mittens, shackles and waist chains. 

Before he signed the bill, de Blasio said the law “promotes transparency within our city jails ... and will help us to manage the jails more effectively and address the problems that were left to us.” He said the departments will start collecting data by Oct. 1. The first report is due Jan. 20, 2015.  

According to the city DOC, Rikers Island uses solitary confinement—also known as punitive segregation—10 times above the national average. It is used to discipline inmates who defy jail rules. City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who sponsored the legislation, said, “40 percent of the inmates have mental issues, and up to 11,000 inmates are in punitive segregation for 23 hours a day” without any human interaction besides communicating with jail staffers.

“We need to remember what Rikers Island holds,” said Dromm at the bill signing ceremony. “Nearly all of the individuals are those who can’t make bail or received short sentences. Dispelling the darkness that has thus far shrouded the practice of punitive segregation is a significant first step in what I hope will be a radical rethinking of how our city deals with incarcerated individuals.”

The bill, including a resolution that orders the DOC to end solitary confinement for those who are returning to jail, was approved by the City Council Aug. 21. The council will review each report and determine if further reform policies should be implemented at the facility.

The DOJ’s report in early August criticized the correctional facility—the second largest in the country—and highlighted how former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration failed to provide oversight. The report said the recurring “pattern and practice of conduct violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” and solitary confinement is being used aggressively against adolescent inmates.

“This method is torturous, separates families and breaks [inmates] down physically and mentally,” said Five Mualimm-ak, a former Rikers Island inmate who said he spent five years of his 12-year prison sentence in solitary confinement.

Mualimm-ak, the founder and executive director of Incarcerated Nation Campaign, a grassroots movement and jail reform advocacy group that helps formerly incarcerated persons with educational opportunities, lauded Dromm and de Blasio for their reform efforts. “It’s time for us to stop looking for progressive models, but looking to be a progressive model,” he said. “Today’s prisoners are tomorrow’s neighbors, so we must invest in the rehabilitation of them.”

DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who announced his reform efforts when he took office in April, said he hopes that his department will rely “less and less” on solitary confinement in years to come. “My 40-year career in corrections has shown me that transparency is the most important part of any reform effort. This bill takes us in the right direction.”

Despite the overwhelming support from the de Blasio administration to reform the facility, Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, doesn’t fully support the reform measure. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed, he said, “There’s no denying that some correction officers have crossed the line and acted in a brutal fashion. Neither I ... nor any correction officer I know, condone this kind of conduct. Those found guilty should be punished. Nevertheless, blaming correction officers for what is happening on Rikers Island is counterproductive, misleading and profoundly unfair.”

While stating that the facility is in a “crisis now,” Seabrook said the mayor and his new correction commissioner “have some clear choices to make. Let’s work together and use this crisis as an opportunity for real change.”