jails

De Blasio Ousts Key Solitary Confinement Foe as Reform Nears

Bryanne Hamill speaks during a September Board of Correction meeting.
Bryanne Hamill speaks during a September Board of Correction meeting. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The de Blasio administration booted a city jail oversight board member leading the charge to limit the use of solitary confinement — just days before the historic proposal was set to be introduced.

The drama played out behind the scenes as the City Council Thursday approved the city’s $8.7 billion plan to build four “safer, fairer” borough-based lockups to replace Rikers Island.

Board of Correction Commissioner Bryanne Hamill, a retired family court judge, had been working for more than three years on a comprehensive proposal to restrict the use of solitary confinement and other punitive measures. It would add a new section on restrictive housing to the board’s rules, a description obtained by THE CITY shows.

The effort gained momentum in June after THE CITY revealed that Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman died in a solitary cell at Rikers. Her death galvanized demands locally and beyond to abolish or sharply limit isolating inmates.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012.
Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012. Photo: Facebook

Hamill’s six-year term on the board expired on Sunday and was not renewed. Typically, board members with expiring terms either get reappointed or are not immediately replaced.

The oversight board needs five of its nine members to approve the proposed changes Tuesday to start the public review process. The scheduled vote is expected to be tight without Hamill, sources said.

“We thank Bryanne Hamill her for her service and for the commitment she has demonstrated to the board throughout her tenure,” said mayoral spokesperson Avery Cohen. “As is common with appointees from previous administrations, a mayor replaces board members whose terms expire.”

Advocates to limit punitive segregation reacted to the news with dismay.

“It’s a real loss for the efforts to change the culture in city jails,” said Jennifer Parish of Urban Justice Center, who works on behalf of incarcerated people. “It’s beyond disappointing that the mayor decided to not reappoint her.”

New Rules Expected Tuesday

The nine-member Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, is still expected on Tuesday to introduce the proposed rules, which would restrict solitary confinement to 15 days at a stretch, down from a current 30. The board is also likely to consider limiting the use of so-called restraint desks.

While the board is supposed to be independent, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio has been waging a campaign against the full package of rules, multiple sources said.

Inmate advocates fear that narrower, one-off standards that apply only to certain housing units could allow jail officials to skirt rules by creating new units for inmates they want to toss into isolation for longer stretches.

Hamill said in an email to others obtained by THE CITY that she wasn’t surprised she got kicked off the board just before the critical vote to propose the rules, which has been pushed back multiple times, was scheduled to finally take place.

“I could not agree to reducing a comprehensive and necessary chapter of draft rules worked on for three years to a handful of rules that DOC wanted pass,”  she said in the Friday email, referring to the Department of Correction.

“My only regret is that I cannot see this rule-making, initiated pursuant to my motion nearly 4 years ago, to its conclusion.”

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

City Hall has appointed Felipe Franco, deputy commissioner for juvenile justice at the city Administration for Children’s Services, to replace Hamill.

Franco has resigned from his city job to work at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But he will technically still be on the city payroll on Tuesday — and won’t be at the board meeting.

‘Torture, Plain and Simple’

Tuesday’s expected proposal has been years in the making. In January 2016, the board voted to direct staff to begin drafting rules regulating how long inmates could be placed in solitary confinement and other restrictive housing units.

“It is appalling that it has taken nearly an entire presidential term for the (Board of Correction) to propose rules, especially given that the subject matter … has such a tremendous, daily impact on human health and safety,” Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project wrote to the board on Thursday.

Criminal justice reform activists demand an end to solitary confinement before a Board of Correction meeting in lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019.
Criminal justice reform activists demand an end to solitary confinement before a Board of Correction meeting in lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/The CITY

Tuesday’s hearing is expected to invoke the legacy of Polanco, who died on her ninth day of a 20-day solitary confinement stint.

“Solitary confinement is torture, plain and simple,” the City Council’s 23-member Progressive Caucus wrote days after her death.

In 2016, de Blasio ended solitary for people 21 and younger in city jails. People with serious mental or physical conditions also have been excluded.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is among those who are calling on the Department of Correction to go further. The Polanco case also has drawn the attention of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have demanded a nationwide ban on solitary confinement.

There are currently about 100 city detainees in solitary, records show.

The plan to replace Rikers Island with four borough-based jails details physical constraints for the new buildings, but largely does not address the treatment of detainees.

Michele Ovesey, the Board of Correction’s acting executive director, told the City Council earlier this month that the city “needs a plan for how operations within the new facilities will be managed.”

“We must not expect new buildings in and of themselves to be a cure-all for problems that have plagued the jails for decades,” she added

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