New York City Moves to Ban Solitary Confinement, Defying Mayor Adams

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The City Council is expected to approve a bill Wednesday that would make New York the largest U.S. city to ban solitary confinement in city jails in most cases, as part of a national campaign. to end a practice that critics say amounts to torture.

The Council's push to ban solitary confinement has been stalled for years over concerns about staffing shortages and violence against prison workers. Mayor Eric Adams has argued since he took office two years ago that isolating detainees is an important tool to help protect correctional workers and detainees.

The mayor and the union representing correctional officers, who also strongly oppose the bill, are expected to continue pushing against the ban until the vote. But sponsors and supporters of the bill say there are enough votes to pass it and override Mr. Adams if he vetoes it.

There is momentum behind the effort: A group of 11 members of Congress wrote a letter last week supporting the bill, including Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a key ally of the mayor, and Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader.

Left-leaning members of the 51-member Council had pressured Adrienne Adams, the City Council President, to schedule a vote on the bill, which now has 38 sponsors.

City Public Defender Jumaane Williams, the bill's sponsor, said isolating detainees was cruel and that the bill still allowed people to be separated when necessary.

“Losing privileges is understandable,” he said. “Losing a basic human right shouldn't be.”

Solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation, is the practice of keeping a detainee alone in a cell for most of the day as punishment. The bill would prohibit the practice beyond a four-hour “de-escalation” period during an emergency. Correctional officers would have to check on detainees every 15 minutes during that period and refer health problems to medical staff.

Other local governments and states have tried to reduce solitary confinement. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a California bill to limit the practice, saying the “overbroad” ban could jeopardize the safety of staff and other detainees. Democrats in Congress introduced a bill this year to ban it nationwide.

In New York state, lawmakers in 2021 limited solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. Six years earlier, the practice was banned for all inmates age 21 and younger in New York City after the death of Kalief Browder, a young man who was held at the troubled Rikers prison complex for three years, including about two years in solitary confinement.

Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement that Adams encouraged council members to oppose the bill.

“Rather than promoting a humane environment within our prisons, the Council's bill would foster an environment of fear and instability,” he said. “It would make it more difficult to protect people in custody and the predominantly black and brown workers charged with their safety from violent individuals.”

Benny Boscio, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the council was “hellbent on protecting our most violent population rather than protecting ourselves.” He said there had been more than 6,500 assaults on prison officers in the past three years, including 51 sexual assaults on female officers.

“This reckless legislation will unnecessarily endanger thousands of lives by putting politics before safety,” he said.

The Council's push comes as federal officials have sought to strip the Adams administration of control of Rikers Island in response to persistent violence and chaos. Adams recently named a new head of the city's jails to work with the federal watchdog who oversees the system to prevent a federal takeover and make jails more humane.

At the same time, Ms. Adams, the Council president, has pushed to close Rikers despite the mayor's resistance. The city must close it by August 2027.

Adams said in a statement that he had been working with unions, advocates and Williams, the public advocate, to find consensus on a solitary confinement bill that would make “our city safer, healthier and more humane.”

“The physical and psychological damage caused by isolation leads to increased death and violence at Rikers and ultimately makes us all less safe,” he said.

Prison reform advocates praised the Council's bill and said it was long overdue. Johnny Pérez, director of the US Prisons Program of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, He called it a “huge step forward” that would “show other states and localities what is really possible and what real alternatives look like.”

Researchers say prolonged isolation causes lasting psychological damage to incarcerated people and impedes their rehabilitation.

Tamara Carter, whose son Brandon Rodriguez committed suicide at Rikers in 2021, testified in support of the ban at a City Council hearing last year. Her son had struggled with mental illness since he was a child.

“Honestly, I think if they hadn't put him in solitary confinement, he would be alive today,” she said. “He was already suffering a mental health crisis; he should have been admitted to a hospital, not where his mind could devour him.”

Mrs. Carter said she is still haunted by imagining her son's final moments. He was found hanging in a so-called shower cage, a small shower cell often used by detainees to rinse off after being hit with pepper spray, but which is sometimes used to isolate detainees.

“I couldn't save my son's life, but if I could help save someone else's life, that's very important to me,” he said.

The bill would ban the use of shower cages. It would also require detainees in restrictive housing (a separate housing area for violent detainees) to receive the same group programs as those outside of it, and to have at least 14 hours out of cells each day.

The city's current rules on punitive segregation place detainees in a restrictive housing zone where people are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day as punishment for a violent crime, although jail officials say they are offered seven hours outside their cells.

It is difficult to know how many detainees are held in solitary confinement at any given time. At a hearing in September 2022, Louis A. Molina, then head of the Department of Corrections, said 117 people were in restrictive housing at the time.

The deaths of several people in solitary confinement at Rikers over the past decade led elected officials to continue pushing for a ban. In 2019, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, suffered an epileptic seizure and died while she was in solitary confinement after guards failed to check on her. Her family was awarded a $5.9 million settlement, the largest ever for the death of an inmate at Rikers Island.

The City Council held a hearing on the ban last fall, but the bill stalled over concerns from unions representing healthcare workers at Rikers, including the powerful 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. As part of the negotiations, health workers will not be required to visit detainees who are in a “de-escalation” emergency, and prison officials will carry out necessary checks.

Carlina Rivera, a Manhattan councilwoman and another sponsor of the bill, said unions were concerned about not having enough staff to conduct the rounds.

“We've tried to make concessions while staying true to the heart of the bill,” he said.

Still, advocates have raised concerns in the past about whether corrections officials can adequately ensure detainees are safe. Williams said the ban wouldn't fix everything that's broken at Rikers, but it would put a significant end to a terrible practice.

“We understand there is much more to do,” he said. “These issues have been out of sight and out of mind for too long.”



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