NYC lawmakers ban solitary confinement in its jails

New York City lawmakers on Wednesday approved a bill to ban the practice of solitary confinement in its jails, a major victory for prisoner advocates that comes in the wake of increased scrutiny on inmate deaths.

The City Council’s decision, which succeeded on a 39-7 vote, faces opposition from Mayor Eric Adams, who told reporters this week that while he doesn’t believe in solitary confinement, he also doesn’t “like” the bill in its current form.

But even if Adams, a Democrat, chooses to veto the measure, it has support from more than two-thirds of New York City’s 51-seat legislative body who signed on as co-sponsors. That means such a supermajority can override any veto, and Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said Wednesday she would pursue that route if necessary.

It was not immediately clear if the mayor would move forward with a veto, but supporters hailed the legislation as a clear affirmation that the nation’s largest city would no longer tolerate a practice that critics decry as a form of psychological torture.

“We will finally have a real enforceable ban on solitary confinement, something people have been talking about for a very long time,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who helped introduce the legislation last year, told reporters ahead of the City Council’s vote. “No matter what terminology you use, there is isolation that the U.N. has called torture, and that is what we want to end. We want to make sure that the psychological effects that are proven are not something that is done in the city, and hopefully, across the country.”

The issue took on a renewed urgency in recent years with reported deaths at the Rikers Island jail complex and across the city’s facilities, with some incidents linked to the use of prolonged solitary confinement.

In one high-profile case, New York City agreed in 2019 to pay $3.3 million to the family of Kalief Browder, who was jailed at Rikers for three years on charges of stealing a backpack in 2010. The 16-year-old was placed in solitary confinement for two of those years and, after the charges were thrown out, he later took his own life in 2015 — due in part to the violence and psychological damage suffered at Rikers, family members said.

In 2021, the Board of Correction, an independent oversight board of New York City’s jail system, voted to end solitary confinement, in which inmates have accused the department of keeping them isolated and confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

Still, politicians and activists have been adamant that the practice, which is also known as punitive segregation, is still occurring.

“The jails have been imposing various forms of solitary confinement by many different names for far too long, causing immense suffering and harm, taking countless lives, and worsening safety for everyone in the jails and after people come home,” said Jerome Wright, a co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign, which supports ending solitary in New York state’s prisons and jails.

New York City’s legislation prohibits inmates from being held in isolation in a cell for more than two hours during the day in a 24-hour period or for more than eight hours at night to sleep. Inmates could be held for longer in order to de-escalate conflict or if they pose an immediate danger to another person, but that can’t exceed more than four hours in a 24-hour period. Staff and mental health professionals must also interact with the inmates at least once an hour, with medical checks every 15 minutes.

Adams, a retired captain of the New York Police Department, told reporters this week that he believes the bill essentially gives a person already jailed on charges of violence further “due process” when they commit more violence.

“That’s the same as if someone comes and commits a felonious assault on you and before the police officer can put them in jail, you need to give them a due process before you can put them in jail,” the mayor said.

In the lead-up to the City Council’s vote, the city’s Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents jail officers, hit the streets with mobile truck advertisements urging council members to vote “no.”

The union also said that the near-elimination of punitive segregation would put the safety of jail staff at risk, some of whom say they’ve been subject to violence and sexual assault from inmates and count on the isolation of inmates as a form of protection.

Republicans who voted Wednesday against the solitary confinement bill, as well as legislation related to police accountability, said the difficulties endured by jail staff can’t be dismissed.

“You sit here and talk about females’ rights,” council member Vickie Paladino said before voting “no.” “What about the rights of our female corrections officers?”

Williams countered that even without an enforceable solitary confinement ban, the violence against staff was occurring regardless, which he said shows a need for alternative solutions.

A report this week by the Columbia University Center for Justice recommends incentive- and program-based forms of separation for inmates, rather than isolation.

With New York City looking to end solitary confinement, others can look to duplicate its efforts, said Vincent Atchity, CEO of Mental Health Colorado, an advocacy organization. Both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate introduced bills this year to largely ban solitary in the federal prison system.

“New York City serves as a model for the rest of the country, and this will no doubt have a much-needed ripple effect on other communities,” he said in a statement.

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