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City to End Solitary Confinement for Inmates Under 21

By Sybile Penhirin | January 13, 2015 5:19pm
 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

NEW YORK CITY — The city’s Board of Correction unanimously voted Tuesday to ban solitary confinement for inmates under 21 years old and cap the punishment at 30 days at a time for other prisoners, part of a sweeping set of reforms to the much-criticized jail complex, officials said.

The new rule, which comes in the wake of an uproar about young inmates being kept isolated for long stretches, is set to go into effect in January 2016 after being approved by the seven board members who attended the meeting.

Seriously mentally ill and seriously physically disabled prisoners will also be excluded from solitary confinement, the department of correction said.

Solitary confinement for other inmates at Rikers Island will be limited to 30 consecutive days, after which those being punished will be allowed to spend at least seven days back in the general population, officials said.

The new rule sets the maximum solitary confinement time to 60 days for a six-month period unless the inmate continues to "persistently commit serious violence", according to a department of correction press release.

Under the new rule, inmates who are considered as a serious threat to safety will be placed in a new "enhanced supervision housing" unit (ESH), officials said.

The new unit, set to start running in January 2016, will be used as a predictive and prevention tool catered for the most violent inmates whereas solitary confinement is and will be used as a punishment for violating jail rules, according to Amanda Masters, the Deputy Executive Director of the city's Board of Correction.

If correction officials think an inmate is going to be violent, they will house him at the ESH, Masters explained adding those inmates' cases will be reviewed by the department of correction every 45 days to see if they can be sent back to the general population.

The complex will hold up to 250 prisoners who will have at least seven hours of out-of-cell time, the department of correction said.

"The first inmates that will be sent (to ESH) are currently in solitary confinement" Masters said, adding no inmates under 21 will be sent to the enhanced supervision unit.

The new unit will feature a higher staff-to-inmate ratio and limit inmate movement by featuring a library and health, social and religious services inside the housing unit instead of requiring staff to escort prisoners to these services elsewhere in the facility.

"By containing Rikers’ most violence prone inmates in a non-punitive, high-security location we make the island safer for everyone else," Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said in a press release. "After decades of alarming mismanagement today’s vote means meaningful reform is well under way at Rikers."

The New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the organizations pressing the Board for the reforms, called the ban on solitary confinement for people 21 and younger "nationally unprecedented."

By October 2015, the city will also designate special housing areas for inmates aged 18-21 who will no longer be mixed with inmates that do not belong to this age group, Masters said.

The correction department has recently been heavily criticized for its violent environment and for using solitary confinement excessively, especially with adolescents.

Federal prosecutors have filed a lawsuit against the city for "extraordinarily high level of violence" at Rikers Island — including "excessive" force by corrections officers and failing to protect young inmates from other inmates,  according to courts paper.

Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Island Jail for the first time in December and promised to put an end to solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates by the end of the year.