jails

City Jails Board Issues Proposed New Solitary Rules After Delay

Criminal justice reform activists protest during a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Oct. 21.
Criminal justice reform activists protest during a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Oct. 21. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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After months of delays, the city’s jail oversight board Tuesday finally introduced a proposed rule to reduce solitary confinement from 30 to 15 days, except in cases of serious assaults on staff.

The Board of Correction, which oversees city lockups, had been working to revamp the rules for more than three years.

Inmate advocates and a member of the board contend the suggested changes, which were posted online Tuesday, have been slowed and watered down by City Hall amid pressure from Correction Department and union officials.

Correction and labor leaders say solitary and other punishments, like chaining inmates to so-called restraint desks, are necessary tools to keep order.

Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson, said the de Blasio administration has worked to “satisfy both the safety of officers and people in our care.”

The push to limit or eliminate solitary confinment became a national topic after the death of 27-year-old Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who 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.

Can’t Wait ‘One More Day’

Inmate advocates and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson have pressed the Board of Correction, which oversees city lockups, to eliminate solitary confinement as a punishment.

“We cannot wait one more day before we start to end this practice,” Johnson wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday, in a letter that cited THE CITY’s reporting on the issue.

There are roughly 100 people in city jails currently in solitary confinement, Correction Department records show.

The proposed changes also call for the elimination of an automatic $25 fine for all inmate infractions.

In addition, correction officials would be required to put people into solitary confinement within 30 days of a guilty adjudication. Jail staff sometimes wait months, or even years, for solitary cell space to open up.

The new rules must go through a public review process and then be voted on again by the board no earlier than January. The board can adjust the proposed rules based on public feedback.

Inmates Shackled by the Feet

Advocates already contend the changes do not go far enough.

They note that the maximum sentence in solitary confinement for serious assaults on staff will remain at 60 days, although inmates could be let out early for good behavior.

Meanwhile, the use of restraint desks, to which inmates are shackled by their feet, would remain in place for up to seven hours a day until the end of February 2022.

“The fact that they’d want to wait until then is an indication that they don’t have the ability to manage these people without restraints,” said Bryanne Hamill, a key reformer on the board whose six-year term was not renewed by the de Blasio administration days before the rules were set to be introduced.

“All doctors said it is unhealthy to physically restrain someone that long,” she told THE CITY. “There’s no other jurisdiction in the country that uses them this way.”

City jail officials say the restraints are used on inmates who seriously injure others. They are needed to protect inmates and officers from harm, according to jail staff.

Under the proposed rules, jail staff must review each inmate who is placed in the desks every seven days.

Those checks currently must be done after 30 days for adults and 15 days for young adults. All the inmates must be released from the desks if they have not engaged in further violent behavior, according to the proposed rules.

Correction officials have long argued that the board does not have jurisdiction over use of the desks — which are made by state prisoners.

The proposed rules also do not include any staffing ratio regulations. There are some areas in city jails where one officer is in charge of up to 25 inmates, according to multiple sources.

The regulation change proposals emerged a day after a federal monitor overseeing the city jail system found that the department has failed to rein in “hyper-confrontational” officers’ use of physical force on inmates.

They also come a week after one Board of Correction member publicly charged the de Blasio administration “interfered” by trying to delay and weaken proposed reforms. City Hall denied the accusations.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved plans to put a jail in every borough, except for Staten Island, clearing the way for the planned 2026 closure of Rikers Island.

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