rikers island

City Jails Board Slow to Act on Solitary Reform, Critics Say

City Board of Correction Interim Chair Jacqueline Sherman speaks at a public meeting, Sept. 10, 2019.
City Board of Correction Interim Chair Jacqueline Sherman speaks at a public meeting, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Plans to limit solitary confinement in city jails were pushed back again Tuesday despite a wide-ranging push for an overhaul after the June death of 27-year-old Layleen Polanco.

The Board of Correction, which oversees city lockups, met Tuesday in downtown Manhattan but didn’t publicly take up the issue. At its last session, in July, board members said they were preparing a reform proposal.

Now a plan won’t be presented until next month, with a vote coming no sooner than December.

“We look forward to continued, productive engagement with all stakeholders throughout the public comment period and at a public hearing devoted solely to the proposed rules,” said  Bennett Stein, a Board spokesperson.

Meanwhile, 116 people — one woman and 115 men — were in so-called punitive segregation in city jails as of Sept. 4, according to the city Board of Correction.

Polanco, a transgender woman, was on her ninth day of a 20-day solitary confinement stint when she was found dead inside her Rikers Island cell on June 7. Her death galvanized demands to eliminate or strictly limit the practice.

Many had hoped the Board of Correction would return after Labor Day with its promised plan in place. The delay is due, in part, to the departure of Executive Director Martha King, who left the Board a few days after the July meeting, sources said.

Advocates Want Action Now

“We call on the city to urgently put an end to solitary confinement in all of its forms, end the [Department of Correction’s] unchecked abuse of authority and to hold the DOC accountable for how it treats people in its custody,” Kelsey De Avila, project director of jail services at Brooklyn Defender Services, said Tuesday.

A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

The Board of Correction is eyeing changes that likely would limit solitary to 15 days and restrict the use of “restraint desks” to just a few hours a days, according to two sources close to the board.

Inmates currently can be put in solitary for up to 30 days at a time and in the desks for long stretches.

In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio ended solitary for people 21 and younger as well as those with serious mental illness. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) has said he wants the administration to go further.

New Form of Solitary Unregulated

Meanwhile, city jail officials will continue to throw people who fail body scans into solitary cells without restrictions, a practice that began this summer.

In a technical maneuver, DOC officials withdrew a request for permission to continue the practice — allowing them to bypass any limits imposed by the board if the policy had been officially approved. Instead, Correction officials will keep seeking one-time emergency permissions that come without restrictions.

Albany lawmakers approved the use of new body scanners last year, and the Department of Correction began using them this summer. When a person fails the scan and is suspected to possess contraband, they are put into “separation status” — a solo cell not subject to the precautions that would normally apply to punitive segregation.

Legal Aid attorney Kayla Simpson spoke about separation status at a Board of Correction meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
Attorney Kayla Simpson spoke about “separation status” at a Board of Correction meeting on Sept. 10, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The practice drew condemnation from advocates who say it shirks rules on solitary confinement, including age and health restrictions. Twenty-six people were in separation status between mid-July and the first week of September, according to the BOC website. 

“You can call this ‘separation status.’ It is literally solitary confinement,” The Legal Aid Society’s Kayla Simpson said at Tuesday’s hearing.

In a letter to the Board, State Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) said the decision to let city jails use the scanners had been predicated on the expectation of policies to protect detainee’s rights.

”The request for this variance is an indication that the policies we were assured were in place, were not,” he wrote.

Simpson charged the DOC was “completely circumventing this board’s ability to impose conditions and protections around this practice.”

“The board is not an advisory body, it’s an oversight body,” she said.

Also on Tuesday, Correction Department officials announced the facility housing female detainees on Rikers is finally in compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, a set of standards designed to minimize sexual assault behind bars. The department has been working on that goal since 2012.

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