Correction Department Touts Drop in Solitary Confinement at Rikers Island

The number of inmates being held in solitary confinement on an average day at Rikers Island has dropped by nearly third compared to a year ago, the Department of Correction announced this morning.

The entrance to Rikers Island. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)
The entrance to Rikers Island. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

The number of inmates being held in solitary confinement on an average day at Rikers Island and other city jails has dropped by nearly third compared to a year ago, the Department of Correction announced this morning.

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The reductions following overhauls to the use of punitive segregation—which isolates inmates who are found to have committed infractions—under the tenure of Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who took over the scandal-plagued department last April.

The average daily population of inmates in punitive segregation—colorfully referred to as the “bing” by officers and inmates—was 506 for the period from April 2014 to March 2015. That’s down 32 percent from the 743 inmates on average for the same period in 2013 through 2014. (The department’s average daily population is 11,400, with more than 80 percent of the inmates being housed on Rikers.)

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“We committed to ending the overuse of punitive segregation—and today’s numbers speak loudly,” Mr. Ponte said in a statement.

One factor in the reduction is the end of punitive segregation for all inmates under 18 years old. There were 91 adolescents in punitive segregation when Mr. de Blasio took office, but the practice that was phased out with much fanfare—and a mayoral visit to Rikers Island—in December. The average population in adolescent punitive segregation had been 40 under Ponte’s tenure before the practice was totally ended; the year before he took over, it was 61.

The department has also ended the use of punitive segregation for inmates it deems severely mentally ill, opting instead to put those inmates in a clinical setting when they commit an infraction that requires removing them from the rest of the jail population. Advocates for ending the practice say punitive segregation is damaging to inmates psychological health, especially for the young and the mentally ill.

“From eliminating punitive segregation for adolescents to Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) for the mentally ill, we are taking strong steps to move from punitive models toward rehabilitative programming and therapeutic alternatives,” Mr. Ponte said. “Our correction officers have shown an unwavering and honorable commitment to serving our Department and keeping our inmates safe, and we are deeply grateful for the dedication of the men and women who help patrol and protect our jails each day.”

City Councilman Corey Johnson, who chairs the health committee and has been a sharp critic of punitive segregation, lauded the CAPS program and its role in

“I think that program has been looked at as a big success and my hope is that they’ll be able to ramp CAPS up, so that anyone that needs CAPS will be in CAPS,” Mr. Johnson told the Observer. “We need to look at a more rehabilitative model, especially for individuals who have a mental health diagnosis, rather than locking people in a cell for 23 hours a day. I still firmly believe that solitary confinement is inhumane, cruel, and counter-productive, and the epidemiology behind it shows that as well.”

The department has been under intense scrutiny following media reports about beatings and deaths of inmates, including the mentally ill, and a federal lawsuit from U.S. AttorneyPreetBharara, who in a scathing report outlined what he deemed a “culture of violence” against teen inmates. That suit began as a class action organized by the Legal Aid Society. John Boston, director of Legal Aid’s Prisoners Rights Project, told the Observer the reduction in the punitive segregation population was a start—and that he’d like to see more.

“I think that generally the advocacy community, while it doesn’t agree with everything the present commissioner is proposing to do, sees that this is the first commissioner in longer than anyone can remember who is actually trying to address the problems of this jail system on the scale that they require,” he said.

The union leaders of some of those men and women patrolling Rikers Island have been skeptical of reforms to punitive segregation, which they deemed a vital tool to stave off violence in the jails. Correction Officer Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook ripped the Board of Correction for voting to end punitive segregation for all inmates under 21—which is set to take effect next year and would lower the population in punitive segregation even further.

“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,” Mr. Seabrook said. (He did not immediately return a request for comment about the punitive segregation figures this morning.)

Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)
Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer) (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

While unions have argued reforms to punitive segregation have gone too far, inmate advocates have argued they have no gone far enough. At the same meeting where Mr. Seabrook slammed the reforms, advocates slammed a union-backed plan for Mr. Ponte’s new Enhanced Special Housing Units that locks down the most troublesome inmates on Rikers Island for all but seven hours a day. It was rolled out, with another mayoral visit, earlier this year, but opposition remains, with Mr. Johnson calling the unit “punitive segregation by another name” at a hearing this week.

Mr. Boston posited that a good deal of the decline in punitive segregation would be due to inmates in other restrictive housing like ESHU.

“However, those units have are supposed to be run with seven hours of lock-out time a day, and with some access to programs and activities, as opposed to the 23 hours lock-in that we tend to be all too familiar with,” Mr. Boston said. “There does seem to be a really strong movement here against that idea of locking them up and throwing away the key, even if they’re people who they don’t think can be kept in general population.”

The department notes that while the use of punitive segregation fell in adolescent facilities, so did violent clashes between inmates and officers—with uses of force dropping from 70 in December to 43 in April.

But there have not been similar declines in violence outside the adolescent jails, Mr. Ponte allowed at the Council hearing, where violence and uses of force have risen or remained steady in recent months. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley sharply questioned Mr. Ponte on why violence had not decreased.

“I don’t have a quick fix or a canned answer for that,” Mr. Ponte said Wednesday. “We’re working on those issues in multiple ways.”

The councilwoman, who has repeatedly argued the department needs more staff, drew out from Mr. Ponte that there is a higher level of staffing per inmate in juvenile facilities, arguing that may be the reason there is less violence.

Mr. Ponte came to the department with a reputation as a reformer, particularly around the issue of solitary confinement. Under his tenure, the department has also limited the number of days that an inmate may spend in punitive segregation to 30 day at a time, and no more than 60 days in any six-month period—though exceptions can be made for “persistently violent” inmates, all of which likely contribute to the decline.

The department also no longer issues punitive segregation for the lowest level infractions, nor does it require inmates re-entering Rikers Island to serve “time owed,” days they racked up in punitive segregation during a prior incarceration in city jails.

Despite reluctance to give up a tool they’d used for so long, Mr. Ponte told the Observer in a sit-down earlier that he had been working to show department leaders reforms that had worked in other jurisdictions, taking trips to jails and prisons out of state.

“Convince them that this is the way to do it, rather than me just telling them, ‘this is a good idea,’” he said.

Correction Department Touts Drop in Solitary Confinement at Rikers Island