The use of solitary confinement in jails and jails has been documented as a “harmful practice” with lasting psychological effects on those incarcerated. Though New York state law technically prohibits its use, there’s still a heated argument for and against solitary confinement in the city — with the mayor and correctional officers on one side and city council members standing with the attorneys on the other .
Mayor Eric Adams, known for his police background, made his stance on the use of solitary confinement or segregation (PSEG) particularly clear even before he took office. He vowed to reverse the De Blasio-era move to end solitary confinement in response to violent offenders and a spike in prison crime, the reported New York Postmuch to the disappointment of the council members.
The legislative clash between progressive councilors and a “law & order” mayor has undoubtedly continued. The current bill, Intro 549, sponsored by public advocate Jumaane Williams, has the support of 35 council members.
City Council spokeswoman Adrienne Adams was particularly vocal about solitary confinement before a hearing of the committee on the legislation and prohibition last week on Monday, September 12. She said the Department of Corrections’ (DOCs) job is to provide a safe and supportive environment for individuals so they can eventually return to society.
“Solitary confinement falls short of that goal, and New York City needs to be smarter by relying on evidence-based practices to keep New Yorkers and our neighborhoods safe,” spokesman Adams said in an opinion. “The research is unequivocal: solitary confinement is a counterproductive and harmful practice that causes immense damage to the health of those affected. It disproportionately leads to suicide and worsens the mental health of those affected.”
Councilor Tiffany Cabán acknowledged the clear “friction” between them and the mayor over the matter. Cabán said she is visiting Rikers Island unannounced to investigate conditions and fully supports the ban. She said PSEG is essentially the same as loners. She’s proud of the supermajority on the council, which is likely to overrule Mayor Adams.
“Solitary confinement not only doesn’t make us safer, but shows that it’s widely recognized by human rights organizations as literal torture,” Cabán said, “and something we shouldn’t be complicit in.”
Victor Pate is of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Solitary Confinement, co-director of the #HALTSolitaryConfinement campaign and a formerly incarcerated person. Pate insisted the gap between passage of the state law and actual implementation on Rikers Island is wide. Some state prisons have alternatives to solitary confinement, such as residential rehabilitation units, where they cannot be separated from the population for more than 15 days. He said there is still a lack of transformation and all-round services for prisoners in some cases.
“Hell. In a word, it was hell,” Pate said of his experience of being imprisoned for robbery and gun possession when he was 18. He said he had “profound” psychological collateral damage from hallucinations and isolation. He has been for 25 years outside and said he still had trouble staying in elevators or small spaces because he had been in solitary confinement for about two years.
On the city side, Pate and others are working on the “veto-proof bill” as a majority of 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 keep correctional officers and inmates safe is through mutual and humane treatment on both sides. He claims that solitary confinement only worsens the behavior and mental health problems of offenders.
Of course, correctional staff at COBA, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, strongly disagree with the ban.
COBA President Benny Boscio said there was “no doubt” that the lack of serious consequences for violent crimes committed by inmates in prison is causing the increase in violence. Boscio attributed a “99 percent increase in stabbings and slashes in FY22” to the elimination of loners or similar practices.
“Prison officials were handcuffed to separating violent offenders from non-violent inmates, which has only encouraged violent inmates to continue assaulting others with impunity,” Boscio said in a statement. “All of this comes at a time when the City Council is preparing to fully abolish racial segregation under criminal law, which will literally add fuel to the fire and put thousands of lives at risk.”
In response to the Amsterdam NewsWhen questioned, the DOC stated that as of April 2022 they “complied” with the HALT Act and also stopped using PSEG and Restrictive Housing Units (RHUs). The DOC said they currently rely on Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) and other “less restrictive housing options” to safely house individuals who have committed violent crimes, have been found in possession of a scalpel or other dangerous weapon, or have a history of severe violence.
The DOC said ESH is an advanced housing system originally created in 2015 for young incarcerated adults ages 22 and older.
“The Department has complied with the HALT Act since April 2022 and no longer administers criminal segregation. We are committed to a restrictive housing model that will create a safer and more humane environment for our staff and others in detention,” said a DOC spokesman.
The DOC claims that a person in ESH is allowed out of their cell for at least seven hours. They did not specify whether this was daily, weekly, or cumulative over a period of time. That being said, the DOC said their dedicated correctional officers rely on their training and lived experience to engage with the population and keep people safe. They added that many of the staff are from the same communities as those in their care.
The scheduled individual ban hearing is next week on Wednesday 28 September at 11am
Ariama C. Long is a member of the Report for America Corps and writes for The Amsterdam News about New York City culture and politics. Your donation of our RFA grant helps her write stories like this; Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today By visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w