jails

Mayor ‘Interfered’ With Jails Overseer on Solitary Confinement, Member Charges

Board of Correction member Dr. Robert Cohen speaks at its Tuesday meeting in lower Manhattan.
Board of Correction member Dr. Robert Cohen speaks at its Tuesday meeting in lower Manhattan. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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City Hall stalled proposed solitary confinement restrictions in an attempt to water them down, a member of the city Board of Correction charged in a stinging rebuke of the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio at a public meeting Tuesday.

Dr. Robert Cohen, a physician and one of the Board of Correction’s most outspoken proponents of reform in city jails, pushed back on assertions from the mayor’s office, published in THE CITY, that city lawyers need more time to review measures scheduled for the board’s consideration.

“The only reason why we’re not voting today is because the city wants to delay our vote in order to remove additional items from the rules,” Cohen said.

Board of Correction interim chair Jacqueline Sherman announced at the start of the board’s monthly meeting that it would not introduce new limits on solitary confinement that day, as planned.

She said a vote to initiate a rule change would be held up until Oct. 31 because the board had not “completed the certification process.”

Cohen asserted that the Law Department had obtained the language last month, allowing “plenty of time” to review. He described the delay as not about legal issues but deliberate intervention in the board’s affairs.

Alluding to an administration spokesperson’s denial to THE CITY of any campaign against the rules, Cohen said: “It is not true that representatives of City Hall have not interfered in the process of a board discussion of this rule and it is not true that City Hall has not blocked the certification process.”

’Disturbing and Upsetting’

The meeting took place just days after de Blasio chose not to renew the tenure of key reformer Bryanne Hamill as her six-year term came to an end. Hamill, a former Family Court judge, had helped develop the rules over more than three years.

Cohen called the removal of Hamill before the planned vote “disturbing and upsetting.”

A criminal justice reform activist, who goes by “Ms. V,” spoke at Tuesday's Board of Correction meeting.
A criminal justice reform activist, who goes by “Ms. V,” spoke at Tuesday’s Board of Correction meeting. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Cohen has been a member of the board since City Council appointed him in 2009. He was most recently re-appointed two years ago, and his latest six-year term will expire in 2023.

The proposed rules would, among other measures, restrict solitary confinement in some types of restrictive housing to 15 days, down from 30, and expand due process requirements.

Anticipating significant changes to the rule package once City Hall has completed its review, Cohen urged the board to publicly release its original proposal to allow for comparison with the final results.

“It represents the Board of Correction, and you should know what we thought was important and what has been removed under political pressure,” he said.

Advocates at the meeting demanded the original proposal be posted immediately.

“Your integrity is at stake. Anything less will lead us to think the board has been be co-opted by the administration,” said Jennifer Parrish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center. She asked the board to “assert their independence.”

Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said she was outraged that the board had yet to release the rules.

“This stalling is a clear effort by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration to dilute rules that would protect New Yorkers,” Werlwas said in a statement.

‘I’m Not There Yet’

Mayoral spokesperson Avery Cohen Tuesday described the mayor’s office’s attempts to influence the Board of Correction solitary rules as standard practice.

“It would be completely naive and irresponsible to believe that we wouldn’t play a role in the rule-making process, as these are policies that directly impact the day to day operations of our facilities,” she wrote. “To suggest that this amounts to ‘interference’ is inaccurate and irresponsible.”

Restrictive housing reforms, in development for years, gained new momentum this year after THE CITY revealed that Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island in June. She had been placed in the unit as punishment for her role in a fight despite a known history of epilepsy and schizophrenia, and died from a seizure, an autopsy showed. 

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

A growing group of city and national elected officials have joined prisoner advocates and health experts in calling for an end to the practice, or at least sharp limits on its use, citing its adverse effects on individuals.

“It’s a total failure. It’s self-defeating, counterproductive,” psychiatrist James Gilligan, who has worked in and studied jails for five decades, told THE CITY in August. “You put somebody in a position of social isolation and sensory deprivation, even mentally healthy people can start hallucinating and their thoughts go wild and they can become paranoid or suicidal or psychotic.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Department of Correction commissioner Cynthia Brann expressed vague support for rules she said were “still being finalized.”

“While the particulars of some details must continue to be discussed, I am pleased with some key points that we expect to be included,” said Brann.

She did not specify whether she backs the 15-day time limit or the elimination of so-called restraint desks, to which people are shackled when out of their cells.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, city jails ended punitive segregation for inmates under age 22 and decreased their reliance on the practice overall. But the mayor has expressed skepticism about further eliminating solitary.

Correction unions vehemently oppose further restrictions, calling punitive segregation a necessary safety tool.

“I’m not there yet because we also have to recognize, we’re striking a balance all the time in our correction system – the rehabilitation I talked about – but we also have to create an atmosphere that is safe and orderly,” de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer in June. “We have to protect our officers as well.”

An earlier version of this article misattributed Jennifer Parish’s testimony to the Board of Correction to another speaker.

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