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

The City Council is expected on Wednesday to approve a bill that would make New York the largest American city to ban solitary confinement in city jails in most cases, 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 jail workers. Mayor Eric Adams has argued since he took office two years ago that isolating detainees is an important tool to help protect them.

The mayor and the union representing correction officers, which also fiercely opposes the bill, are expected to continue to lobby against the ban right up to the vote. But the bill’s sponsors and supporters say there are enough votes to pass the bill and to override Mr. Adams if he vetoes it.

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

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

The city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who is a sponsor of the bill, said that isolating detainees was cruel and that the bill still allowed for people to be separated when needed.

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

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

Other local governments and states have sought to curtail solitary confinement. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a California bill to limit the practice, saying the “overly broad” 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 21 and younger in New York City after the death of Kalief Browder, a young man who was detained at the troubled Rikers jail complex for three years, including about two years in solitary confinement.

The death of Kalief Browder, a young man who spent about two years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, prompted a ban on the practice for inmates 21 and younger.Credit…Associated Press

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

“Instead of promoting a humane environment within our jails, the Council’s bill would foster an environment of fear and instability,” he said. “It would make it harder to protect people in custody, and the predominantly Black and brown workers charged with their safety, from violent individuals.”

Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the Council was “hellbent on protecting our most violent population instead of protecting us.” He said that there had been more than 6,500 assaults against correction officers over the last three years, including 51 sexual assaults against female officers.

“This reckless legislation is going to needlessly jeopardize thousands of lives by putting politics ahead of safety,” he said.

The Council’s push comes as federal officials have sought to strip control over Rikers Island from the Adams administration in response to persistent violence and chaos. Mr. Adams recently named a new head of city jails to work with the federal monitor overseeing the system to avoid a federal takeover and to make the jails more humane.

At the same time, Ms. Adams, the Council speaker, has pressed to close Rikers despite resistance from the mayor. The city is required to close it by August 2027.

Ms. Adams said in a statement that she had been working with unions, advocates and Mr. 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 harm caused by solitary confinement leads to increased death and violence on Rikers and ultimately makes us all less safe,” she said.

Prison reform advocates praised the Council bill and said it was long overdue. Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture,called it a “big step forward” that would “show other states and localities what is actually possible and what real alternatives look like.”

Researchers say that prolonged isolation does long-lasting psychological damage to people who are incarcerated and impedes their rehabilitation.

Tamara Carter, whose son Brandon Rodriguez died by 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 boy.

“I honestly think that if he was not put in solitary confinement, he would be alive today,” she said. “He was already suffering from a mental health crisis — he should have been put in a hospital setting, not where his mind could eat at him.”

“I couldn’t save my son’s life, but if I could help save someone else’s life, that’s so important to me,” said Tamara Carter, whose son died by suicide while detained at Rikers Island.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

Ms. Carter said she is still haunted by imagining her son’s final moments. He was found hanged in a so-called shower cage, a small shower cell that is typically used by detainees to rinse off after they have been hit with pepper spray but 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 so important to me,” she said.

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

The city’s current rules on punitive segregation put detainees in a restrictive housing area where people are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours of the day as punishment for a violent offense, though jail officials say they are offered seven hours out of their cells.

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

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

The City Council held a hearing on the ban last fall, but the bill stalled over concerns from unions that represent health care workers on Rikers, including the powerful 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. As part of the negotiations, health care workers will not be required to make rounds for detainees who are in a “de-escalation” emergency, and correction officers will make the required checks.

Carlina Rivera, a City Council member from Manhattan and another bill sponsor, said that the unions were concerned that they did not have enough staff to conduct the rounds.

“We’ve tried to make compromises while staying true to the heart of the bill,” she said.

Still, advocates have raised concerns in the past over whether correction officers can properly ensure that detainees are safe. Mr. Williams said that the ban would not fix everything that is broken at Rikers, but it would meaningfully end a terrible practice.

“We understand that there’s so much more that needs to be done,” he said. “These issues have been out of sight and out of mind for too long.”

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