punitive segregation

City Jail Overseer Urged to End Solitary Confinement After Layleen Polanco Death

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams testifies at Board of Corrections hearing on so-called punitive segregation, on Dec. 2, 2019.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams testifies at Board of Corrections hearing on so-called punitive segregation, on Dec. 2, 2019. Photo: NYC Board of Correction/YouTube

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The city’s jail oversight board should eliminate the use of solitary confinement at local lockups, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams urged Monday, saying detainees who act out can be separated but still treated humanely.

“We must end solitary confinement in the City of New York now,” Jumaane Williams testified at the city Board of Correction’s first public hearing on proposed changes to punitive segregation rules.

The board, which oversees city lockups, has proposed limiting stints in solitary confinement for most cases to a maximum of 15 days at a time, down from 30 days.

Williams objected, as did many others who testified. “Fifteen days in solitary confinement is 15 days too many,” Williams said. “Through this rulemaking process, New York City has an opportunity to serve as a model for the nation in defending basic human rights.”

The city’s solitary confinement practices came under national scrutiny after the death of Layleen Polanco. The 27-year-old transgender woman was in the ninth day of a 20-day solitary confinement sentence when she was found lifeless inside her Rikers Island cell on June 7.

An Evolving Stance

After delivering prepared remarks, Williams said he did not initially believe it made sense to eliminate solitary confinement.

“It took me a while to get to this position,” he said, noting he had “many conversations” before he fully understood the issue.

“Most folks understand if there’s problematic behavior, we do need to separate someone to get that corrected,” he said. “But that does not mean we have to isolate them. That’s is where the torturous behavior comes.”

Other jails and prisons that have drastically reduced the use of solitary confinement use bigger spaces to hold individuals who act out and boost social programming. They include the Middlesex County Adult Corrections Center in New Jersey, Nebraska Department of Corrections and the North Carolina adult correction and juvenile justice system.

New York City should similarly expand programs to include those who break jail rules, some reformers suggested — violations sometimes currently addressed through punitive segregation.

DOC Silent at Hearing

Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann did not attend the hearing and no one from the department testified.

“A representative from the department was present at the hearing and we have been in continuous discussions with the board regarding the rulemaking process,” said Peter Thorne, a DOC spokesperson.

Correction officials and jail union leaders have previously argued that solitary confinement is a necessary tool to maintain safety, and that eliminating it would lead to chaos. There are currently approximately 100 people in solitary confinement in city jails.

The Board of Correction has already scrapped punitive segregation for those under 22 and for people with serious mental illness. Since 2014, the number of people in solitary has dropped by about 80%, Correction Department records show.

More Harm Than Good?

Studies have shown solitary confinement can worsen pre-existing mental illness and cause inmates to develop medical issues. A 2014 analysis of New York City jails found solitary confinement was associated with self-harm and death.

“Solitary confinement is a torturous punishment that causes deep and permanent psychological, physical and social harm,” Williams testified. “It is an ineffective, counterproductive, and unsafe disciplinary practice that fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior.”

Some inmate advocates testified they are worried jail officials would find loopholes in the new rules to keep people in solitary for longer than 15 days.

Alex Abell, of the Urban Justice Center, said he was concerned new solitary restrictions do not apply to some areas inside the Rikers’ medical unit, known as the North Infirmary Command.

“It’s a horrible place to be, and I don’t think these restrictive housing rules actually address those housing rules,” he said.

Punishment is no deterrent to violence, he added.

Some inmate advocates and former board member Bryanne Hamill, a key reformer whose six-year term was not renewed by the de Blasio administration, contend the proposed rules were watered down following pressure from City Hall.

In October, Avery Cohen, a mayoral spokesperson, said the administration worked with the board and Correction Department “to formulate rules that protect the safety of our officers and everyone in our custody.”

“Our previous comments stand,” she said Monday.

“Given the complexity of the rule, the Board of Corrections provided us with a draft months in advance, allowing us to reach a mutually agreed upon set of rules that make the most sense for our facilities,” Cohen added.

For instance, under the proposed rules, correction staff will be allowed to keep inmates shackled to desks by their feet for up to seven hours a day until the end of February 2022.

Critics blasted the board for allowing the desk restraints.

“There is no reason to wait more than two years to end this cruel and inhumane practice,” testified Daniele Gerard, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Children’s Rights.

‘A Lot of Work to Do’

Several advocates noted that a federal monitor overseeing official use of force in New York City’s jails found that the DOC still hasn’t reined in “hyper-confrontational” officers.

The federal monitor, Steve Martin, said in his October quarterly report that the frequency with which correction officers use force on inmates this year reached its highest level since he began issuing quarterly findings in 2016.

The proposed rules are currently undergoing a public review process that continues with a second hearing on Dec. 16. The board has the ability to change the proposed rules based on public feedback.

Board member Dr. Robert Cohen said at the hearing that the BOC “has a lot of work to do” and added, in response to a mother’s testimony complaining about her son’s “inhumane” shackling: “A lot of things you are asking for should be in the rule. I hope they end up back in the rule. Some of it just disappeared.”

The hearing was held on the same day the de Blasio administration filed its land use application to officially prohibit jails on Rikers Island after Dec. 31, 2026.

The application is one of the first formal steps tied to the shut down of Rikers Island for four borough based jails.

“By guaranteeing that Rikers will never again be used for incarceration, we’re charting a new course forward for the Island and the people of New York City,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re making good on our promise to close Rikers once and for all. Though mass incarceration may not have started here, we’ll do all we can to make sure it ends here.”

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