Board Votes to End Solitary Confinement for Rikers Inmates Under 21 By 2016

Both advocates for jail reform and the union representing corrections officers came away unhappy after a Board of Correction vote today.

Inmates under 21 will no longer be subject to punitive segregation at Rikers Island. (Getty)
Inmates under 21 will no longer be subject to punitive segregation at Rikers Island. (Getty) Getty Images

The Board of Correction today approved a plan for an enhanced supervision unit touted by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte—but also voted to end solitary confinement for all inmates on Rikers Island under 21 by 2016, a sweeping change that will set the department apart from jail systems nationwide.

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The board voted unanimously today to create the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit touted by Mr. Ponte and Mr. de Blasio at a visit to Rikers Island last month, as well as a previously discussed plan to limit the use of punitive segregation—in which inmates who commit an infraction are locked up for 23-hours a day—to no more than 30 days per offense.

But the board added amendments to go even further, calling for an end to punitive segregation for any inmate under 21 by 2016, and calling for housing inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 in their own unit, separate from inmates over 21 or below 18. Those proposals are pending funding, the board said.

While that was well beyond what Mr. Ponte had originally outlined, the commissioner said he believed the end of punitive segregation for those under 21 would lead to “better outcomes.”

“I mean, the idea that we lock people up for any length of time and don’t provide them programs or treatment is not a good outcome. It seems to defy logic—we take someone who has misbehaved and lock them up for 23 hours a day and somehow they’re gonna get it? They don’t,” Mr. Ponte told reporters after the meeting.

But the scene within the Manhattan auditorium would be familiar to anyone who has followed a similar battle for—and against—reform in the NYPD. Even as the board voted to end solitary confinement for those 18 to 21—something no other adult jail system in the entire nation has done—protesters insisted reform had not gone far enough, standing silently with a banner that derided the department’s practices as “torture.” At the same time, the leader of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association fumed that the Board of Correction had gone too far, taking away Mr. Ponte’s authority to run the jail as he saw fit and leaving officers unsafe by restricting punitive segregation.

“Every single time a correction officer gets assaulted because of what you did, we’re gonna sue you, too,” Mr. Seabrook promised the members of the board.

Mr. Seabrook, a fierce defender of his officers whose union tweets daily the number of them assaulted in the city’s jails, insisted the use of punitive segregation was necessary to maintain control in the city’s jails.

“Putting an individual in punitive segregation that opens the face of another inmate, or opens the head of a correction, I don’t find that as torture—I find that as being able to stop the continued assaults,” he said.

But the board, led by chairman Gordon J. Campbell, is tasked with creating and approving the rules governing the department. As recently as this week it seemed unclear whether they’d be willing to create the enhanced security unit Mr. Ponte and Mr. de Blasio had touted. A day before the meeting Mr. Ponte took to the Daily News to urge them to pass the plans for the unit, which would house the most troublesome inmates involved in gang assaults. The inmates would be locked in for 17 hours a day, but unlike punitive segregation, the unit would include programming and services. After the vote, one man among the roughly dozen people with protests signs in the audience shouted out “ESHU is torture!”

“It’s not torture,” Mr. Ponte said of the unit after the meeting. “It doesn’t even meet the definition of punitive segregation.”

Still, even some board members remained wary of the new unit—though they voted unanimously to create it. Board member Bryanne Hamill, a former family court judge, said the unit may be “counter-productive” and looks “like solitary confinement.”

“I do not support locking in the enhanced supervision inmates 17 hours a day. My preference is that they would be locked out. However, my preferences to start the meaningful solitary confinement changes proposed a year ago, the reforms, feels to me like it’s held hostage to the enhanced supervision unit,” Ms. Hamill said after her vote.

After the meeting, Mr. Ponte said he wouldn’t quite phrase it that way.

“I think it was presented as a package, and that was our thoughts. It was packaged because we need all the pieces to make it work,” Mr. Ponte told the Observer.

And taken together, Mr. Ponte said, all the proposals approved today will keep the jails safe—though he said he understood Mr. Seabrook’s concerns.

Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook after the meeting. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)
Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook after the meeting. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)

“In totality as you look at the situation today, we have about 1,000 inmates on backlog that should be in punitive segregation that aren’t. So the system just doesn’t work as it’s currently designed,” Mr. Ponte said. “This will allow the system to function, to keep the most dangerous offenders in a confinement setting thats’ safer to all of us.”

But Mr. Seabrook—who defended Mr. Ponte during the meeting while he railed against the board— insisted the rollback of punitive segregation would put officers and inmates in imminent jeopardy.

“I think that the result is going to be the death of an officer or an inmate, again, because we’re not going to be able to put these inmates in an area where can protect them from hurting themselves or hurting others,” Mr. Seabrook said after the meeting.

Never one to shy away from a fight, Mr. Seabrook also sparred with the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, which has sought influence in the city’s jails due to large percentage of inmates who have mental health diagnoses (“Joe Ponte doesn’t go down there and tell them that you shouldn’t give this person a flu shot,” he fumed) and with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who called for those under 18 to be removed from Rikers Island all together.

“Sixteen and 17-year-olds are still being held at Rikers Island, promoting cycles of recidivism and a broken criminal justice system,” Ms. Crowley told the board, which also threatens the city’s ability to control its jails in the face of a federal lawsuit.

“Why don’t we ask the residents in Ms. Crowley’s neighborhood, would we would like a jail for adolescents around the corner from where she lives? Because I certainly don’t think anyone here wants it around the corner from where they live,” Mr. Seabrook said. “That’s why we have Rikers.”

Board Votes to End Solitary Confinement for Rikers Inmates Under 21 By 2016