Bills Look to Reform Solitary Confinement on Rikers Island

By Katie Honan on August 20, 2014 3:53pm 

 A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island prison complex.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

CIVIC CENTER — The City Council is set to vote on a pair of bills that would reform solitary confinement at Rikers Island after the death of at least two inmates and politicians observed "horrendous" conditions there.

One would require improved data from the Corrections Department on inmates in solitary — including quality of life, the number of inmates receiving mental health services and clearer information on the number of inmates who have attempted or committed suicide.

The reporting would be released quarterly and also share how many inmates have hurt themselves, how many have died while in solitary and the number of sexual assault allegations against the staff, among other information.

The other measure would stop the DOC from placing former prisoners in solitary confinement if they are returned to jail after being released.

Inmates returning to jails after committing other crimes and have remaining time in solitary from previous sentences can be locked up alone to serve out that time.

The sponsor of the second bill, Councilman Danny Dromm was inspired by a friend who served an extended stay in a "horrendous" cell at Rikers Island, he said.

The friend spent months in solitary after guards found cigarettes, which are contraband, while he was awaiting sentencing for a drug charge, according to the councilman.

Later, he was re-arrested on another drug charge and brought right back to solitary confinement — which Dromm said damaged his friend's psyche.

"He told me a lot about what happened," he said. "My friend was destroyed coming out of that experience."

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The Queens rep also visited Rikers after he was elected to the City Council and found the conditions were "horrendous."

"It smelled of urine, the bed was rusted and the mattress was a few inches thick with a mildewed cover," he said.

A blower pushes hot air directly on the bed, and the heat inside is "incredible," he said.

"I was very concerned by the conditions that I saw," Dromm said, adding that prisoners in solitary get minimal recreational time and it's usually early in the morning, before the sun comes up.

Dromm was also challenged by David Rothenberg of the Fortune Society, which works to reform the country's criminal justice system, to "do something about solitary," he said.

"These prisoners coming out are just scarred for life," he said.

The DOC did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

"Hopefully we will begin to correct some of the culture that exists there," Dromm said.

Both bills will be voted on Thursday in the City Council. 

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