reform deferred

Jails Board Promises Solitary Confinement Reform — But Delays Action

Marvin Mayfield advocates for the end of solitary confinement outside of a Board of Correction meeting in lower Manhattan, on July 9, 2019.
Marvin Mayfield advocates for the end of solitary confinement outside of a Board of Correction meeting in lower Manhattan, on July 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city’s jail oversight board promised Tuesday to propose new limits on solitary confinement — but not until the fall.

The announcement came at a Board of Correction hearing dominated by the story Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died locked up alone in a Rikers Island cell on June 7. Her death has spurred calls for everything from reform of solitary confinement rules to outright elimination of the practice.

The three-hour hearing brimmed with emotional testimony as speakers invoked Polanco as well as their own experiences behind bars.

“Why does it take a life for you to come to this meeting?” asked an exasperated Jack Davis as he gripped the podium during the public comment session.

Davis, one of many formerly incarcerated men who spoke, turned to the board and corrections officers, and said: “I need y’all to get it together, please!”

No Further Discussion Until Late Summer

Following the outcry over Polanco’s death, board members floated the idea that solitary confinement changes were on tap in late June.

On Tuesday, Interim Chair Jacqueline Sherman began the meeting by announcing the board would start the process of rule changes regarding so-called punitive segregation at “a fall public meeting.” The next board meeting is set for Sept. 10.

Sherman also said the board has asked city officials to comply with its request for Polanco’s autopsy report. The city medical examiner has not yet disclosed a cause of death.

Board of Correction Interim Chair Jacqueline Sherman speaks during a meeting in lower Manhattan on July 9, 2019.
Board of Correction Interim Chair Jacqueline Sherman speaks during a meeting in lower Manhattan on July 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The results of the autopsy are critical to our ongoing investigations here,” said Sherman. “And we strongly urged the city to expedite this process and release those results as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, all but one of the nine board members voted to continue allowing Rikers corrections officers to ignore a rule that prisoners must be released for seven days after 30 consecutive days in solitary confinement.

Polanco had been in solitary for nine days when she was found unresponsive. She was being held on $500 bail after a misdemeanor arrest.

Polanco was confined to the Restrictive Housing Unit, following what officials say was her role in a fight.

Solitary Stories

On Tuesday morning, criminal justice reform and veterans of solitary confinement gathered to greet those arriving for the Board of Correction meeting at 125 Worth St. in Lower Manhattan

Marvin Mayfield, 55, said he spent time in Rikers in the 1980s, and saw mentally ill people sent to solitary confinement.

“They didn’t belong in jail, they belonged in a hospital,” said Mayfield. “People are still literally dying in solitary confinement and there’s just got to be a better way.”

Marcos Barrios said he was released three years ago from Rikers, where he served as a peer counselor.

Jack Davis calls for the end of solitary confinement during the Board of Correction meeting.
Jack Davis calls for the end of solitary confinement during the Board of Correction meeting. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He recounted witnessing a man in a neighboring cell trying to commit suicide after coming out of solitary. Barrios said correction officers gave him a chance to talk to the man, rather than send him straight back to solitary.

“They didn’t put him in the box. They sent him to mental health, and he came back out,” said Barrios, 53. “I was able to give him more counseling. That’s what we need.”

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