By Ariama C. Long
The use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons has been documented as a “harmful practice” with lasting psychological effects on detainees. Though New York State law technically bans its use, there’s still a heated argument for and against solitary in the city—with the mayor and corrections officials on one side and city council members standing with advocates on the other.
Mayor Eric Adams, known for his cop background, made his stance on the use of solitary confinement or punitive segregation (PSEG) particularly clear, even before he got into office. He vowed to reverse the De Blasio-era move towards ending solitary confinement as a response to violent offenders and a spike in jailhouse crime, reported the New York Post, much to the disappointment of council members.
The legislative throwdown between progressive council members and a ‘law & order’ mayor has without a doubt continued. The current bill Intro 549, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, has the support of 35 council members.
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams was especially vocal about solitary confinement last week on Monday, Sept. 12, ahead of a committee hearing on the legislation and ban. She said that the Department of Corrections (DOCs) job is to create a safe and supportive environment for individuals to eventually reenter society.
“Solitary confinement does not line up with this objective and New York City must be smarter by relying on evidence-based practices to keep New Yorkers and our neighborhoods safe,” said Speaker Adams in a statement. “The research is clear: solitary confinement is a counterproductive and harmful practice that causes immense damage to the health of those subjected to it. It disproportionately leads to suicide and worsens the mental health of those subject to it.”
Councilmember Tiffany Cabán confirmed the definite “friction” between them and the mayor on this issue. Cabán said she tours Rikers Island unannounced to survey conditions and is fully supportive of the ban. She said that PSEG is essentially the same thing as solitary. She is proud of the supermajority on the council that will likely overrule Mayor Adams.
“Not only does solitary not make us any safer but it shows that it’s also widely recognized by human rights organizations to literally be torture,” said Cabán, “and something we should not be participating in.”
Victor Pate is from New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, co-director of the #HALTSolitaryConfinement campaign, and a formerly incarcerated person. Pate insisted that the gap between the state law being passed and actual implementation in Rikers Island is wide. Some state prisons have alternatives to solitary, like residential rehabilitative units, where they can’t be separated from the population for no more than 15 days. He said that there’s still a lack of transformative and wraparound services in some cases for prisoners.
“Hell. In one word, it was hell,” said Pate about his experience being incarcerated at 18 for robbery and weapons possession. He said he has “profound” psychological collateral damage from hallucinations and isolation. He’s been out for 25 years and said he still has problems being in elevators or small spaces because of his time of approximately two years in solitary.
On the city side, Pate and others are working on the “veto-proof bill,” given that a majority of the city council members already support it and will override Mayor Adams if he vetoes it, to force the DOC to end solitary confinement in any form. Pate said the best way to protect corrections officers and inmates is to have mutual and humane treatment on both sides. He maintains that solitary just exacerbates behaviors and mental health issues from offenders.
Of course, correctional staff at COBA, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, heartily disagree with the ban.
COBA President Benny Boscio said that there is “no doubt” that not having serious consequences for violent crimes committed by incarcerated persons while in jail is causing the increase in violence. Boscio attributed a “99% increase in stabbings and slashings in Fiscal Year ’22” to the elimination of solitary or similar practices.
“Correction Officers have been handcuffed from separating violent offenders from nonviolent inmates, which has only emboldened violent inmates to continue to attack others with impunity,” said Boscio in a statement. “All of this comes at a time when the City Council is preparing to eliminate punitive segregation completely, which will literally throw gasoline on the fire, jeopardizing thousands of lives.”
In response to the Amsterdam News’ inquiry, the DOC stated that they have been “in compliance” with the HALT Act since April 2022 and have also ended the use of PSEG and Restrictive Housing Units (RHUs). The DOC said that they currently rely on Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) and other “less restrictive housing options” to safely house individuals who have committed violent acts, have been found in possession of a scalpel or other dangerous weapon, or who have a history of serious violence.
The DOC said ESH is a progressive level housing system that was originally created in 2015 for young incarcerated adults, 22 and older.
“The Department has been in compliance with the HALT Act since April 2022 and no longer administers punitive segregation. We rely on a restrictive housing model that will create a safer and more humane environment for our staff and other individuals in custody,” said a DOC spokesperson.
The DOC claims that a person in ESH is allowed a minimum of seven hours out of their cell. They did not specify if this was daily, weekly, or cumulative over a designated period. Outside of that the DOC said that their dedicated corrections officers rely on their training and lived experiences to engage with the population and keep people safe. They added that many of the staff come from the same communities as those in their custodial care.
The scheduled hearing on the solitary ban will be next week on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 11 a.m.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w