jails

Solitary Confinement Reform Pushed Back Again as City Hall Balks

Criminal justice reform activists call for a plan to end the use of solitary confinement during a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Oct. 21, 2019.
Criminal justice reform activists call for a plan to end the use of solitary confinement during a press conference on the steps of City Hall, Oct. 21, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Plans by the board that oversees city jails to vote Tuesday on proposing new limits for solitary confinement will be postponed amid pressure from City Hall, THE CITY has learned.

Layleen Polanco's family handed out a portrait during the 27-year-old transgender woman's funeral on Saturday, June 15.
Layleen Polanco’s family handed out a portrait during the 27-year-old transgender woman’s funeral on Saturday, June 15. Photo: Handout

The Board of Correction had been expected to introduce rules that would reduce solitary confinement to no more than 15 days at a time, down from 30. The package of rules also would limit the chaining of inmates to so-called restraint desks, among other changes.

But sources told THE CITY the vote by the ostensibly independent board will be put off as the de Blasio administration attempts to chip away at the proposal.

The development came after Mayor Bill de Blasio recently booted board member Bryanne Hamill, a longtime proponent of changing the punishment system in city jails.

The proposed limits gained new momentum in recent months after the June death of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement at Rikers Island — galvanizing a movement to limit or outright ban the isolation of inmates.

‘Not There Yet’

But de Blasio has said he is “not there yet” on ending solitary confinement, and has yet to throw his weight behind new limits. City Hall staffer Freya Rigterink has been making the rounds of Board of Correction members making a case against the package of rule changes, sources said.

A City Hall spokesperson on Tuesday morning denied any campaign against the rules. She added that the city Law Department, which got the rules package last month, wasn’t given enough time to complete “a responsible and thorough review.”

“We are actively working on reforms to satisfy both the safety of officers and people in our care,” said the spokesperson, Avery Cohen.

The board’s Tuesday meeting comes just days after the City Council approved plans for four jails spread across the city, clearing the way for the proposed 2026 closure of Rikers Island.

After the decision to not renew Hamill’s appointment, City Hall replaced her with Felipe Franco, the city’s deputy commissioner for juvenile justice at the Administration for Children’s Services.

Franco won’t be at Tuesday’s meeting — he is technically still on city payroll.

A ‘Step Towards Change’

On Monday morning, the brother of the late Kalief Browder, the young man whose two-year ordeal in solitary confinement on Rikers Island made national headlines, called for an end to isolating inmates.

“We no longer want to sit here and just talk ‘til we’re blue in the face,” Browder said.

“We are still talking about ending the torture to our kids, to our people, to our young adults that are innocent until proven guilty,” he added.

In 2010, 16-year-old Kalief Browder was sent to Rikers after allegedly stealing a backpack. He was released three years later due to a lack of evidence. Kalief committed suicide in 2015 as his story helped drive a national movement to end solitary confinement for youth.

Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, speaks about ending solitary confinement during a news conference at City Hall on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.
Akeem Browder, brother of Kalief Browder, speaks about ending solitary confinement during a news conference at City Hall on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A year later, de Blasio stopped solitary confinement in city jails for people 21 and younger.

Akeem Browder told THE CITY he believes ending solitary is a matter of public safety, and called the Board of Correction’s original plan to propose reforms a “step towards change.”

“If we have to hold someone in confinement, for their safety and for the safety of their officers, for the safety of the community they’re around, then do it in a humane way,” he said.

Browder spoke after a demonstration held by Jails Action Coalition and HALT Solitary, whose members gathered to announce what they called a “blueprint” to end solitary confinement in the city.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association is among the major opponents to any rule changes.

“It is shameful to distort the real use of punitive segregation to advance a purely political agenda,” COBA President Elias Husamudeen told THE CITY.

Husamudeen called solitary confinement just a “jail within a jail,” and equated the practice to removing law-breakers from the streets.

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