jails

Rikers Body Scanners Feed Unrestricted Solitary Confinement

The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Even with solitary confinement practices under increasing scrutiny, the Department of Correction recently began throwing people into an unrestricted form of isolation after contraband searches, THE CITY has learned.

The jails began using newly approved ionizing radiation body scanners on July 15 to hunt for banned drugs and weapons, according to a letter DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann sent this week to the Board of Correction, which oversees the city’s lockups.

When those scans suggest forbidden items stashed somewhere in the body, jailers place the inmate in a solitary holding cell until the contraband can be recovered.

But in doing so, correction officers bypass regulations that usually apply to solitary confinement at Rikers — including rules that forbid isolating people with serious medical conditions and those under 22.

“Following positive body scan findings, the department has a responsibility to ensure individuals who are revealed to possess dangerous contraband are separated from the population in a manner that maintains their safety, the safety of staff, and the safety of the population in custody,” Brann wrote.

’Minimum standards’ set aside

She asked the board, which oversees city jails, to allow her in these cases to forgo several of its “minimum standards” — the rights to which all city inmates are entitled, including recreation, access to legal documents and visits.

According to the letter, six “sharpened or bladed” weapons had been recovered. Eight detainees were released from the segregated cell after two days, according to the list, and seven after one.

Normally, people being sent to solitary confinement at Rikers must first be evaluated for serious medical and mental health problems. People found to have such issues are forbidden from being placed in “punitive segregation” — isolation as a form of punishment.

Detainees under age 22 are also excluded from solitary, under Board of Correction rules — but these conditions do not apply to separation status. The people put in separation status so far range from ages 18 to 29, and detainees sent there aren’t screened for medical conditions.

Peter Thorne, a Department of Correction spokesperson, said the scanners are “part of a common sense, multi-layered approach designed to increase safety in the jails.”

“Every piece of contraband compromises the safety and security of our personnel and people in custody,” he said. “New Yorkers expect us to do everything we can to stop the flow of weapons, drugs, and other dangerous items into city jails.”

‘A Clear End Run’

A man under age 21 who was suspected of having contraband told the Legal Aid Society he was held for nearly 48 hours last week in a solitary cell without access to a shower, toothbrush or toothpaste or a phone call, an attorney said.

The cell was not air-conditioned and was filled with the stench of excrement that gets stuck  in a contraband-catching grate in its toilet, Kayla Simpson, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Legal Aid, said he told her.

When the young man asked for dinner one night, he was allegedly told there was not enough food for him left, she said.

He told Legal Aid he asked several times over the course of the nearly 48 hours he spent in isolation for a new scan to show that he had no contraband, but says DOC staff refused, Simpson said.

“Separation status is a clear end run around crucial protections designed to limit New Yorkers’ contact with solitary confinement,” Simpson said.

She added: “Especially in the wake of recent tragic deaths in custody, it is unconscionable that the city is adding new punitive policies.”

Simpson was referring, in part, to the June 7 death of Layleen Polanco, who received clearance to enter punitive segregation on Rikers Island despite a seizure disorder and a recent hospitalization.

The death of the 27-year-old transgender woman spurred calls to strictly limit or ban solitary confinement — and underscored the danger of isolation for people with medical conditions.

The Board of Correction, which oversees and sets the rules for city jails, will decide at its upcoming September meeting whether to allow DOC to hold people in separation status to recover contraband.

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