Four Deadline Extensions Later, Teenagers Are Still Locked Up in Solitary on Rikers Island

Rikers Island
Rikers Island
Wikipedia

June 30 should have been the day that Rikers Island ended solitary confinement for 18- to 21-year-olds. This would have made the jail complex the first in the nation to eliminate solitary for that age group.

Instead, the Department of Correction (DOC) sent a request to the Board of Correction, the city agency that sets minimum standards and oversees conditions in New York City’s jail system, asking for a six-month extension of that deadline. This is the fourth extension the department has requested since October 2015.

"We really expected too much too soon," DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, flanked by seventeen DOC officials, told the board at its monthly meeting Tuesday morning.

The DOC ended the use of punitive segregation for 16- and 17-year-olds at the end of 2014. It planned to do the same with the 18- to 21-year-olds, known as "young adults." To do that, it implemented a new Secure Unit, an alternative housing unit, to separate those who had "the most persistent and violent behavior" from others in that age group. As of July 1, the 56-bed Secure Unit held three people.

But, stated Ponte in his June 30 letter to the board, as jail officials moved an increasing number of young adults into the George Motchan Detention Center (GMDC), the building designated to separate that age group from younger teens and older adults, "there was a pronounced spike in the number of incidents." These incidents ranged in severity from young men disobeying staff orders to slashings. Though the department added 160 new officers to GMDC, this has not prevented violence or an increase in alarms, in which the entire building is placed on lockdown after an incident.

According to Ponte, fifteen to sixteen young adults are currently in punitive segregation, up from the seven confined last week. He requested that the board extend the deadline another six months for 19- to 21-year-olds, allowing the DOC to implement and assess its Secure Unit while being able to place 19- to 21-year-olds in a modified punitive segregation (separate from the unit for older adults). Eighteen-year-olds, however, will be entirely excluded from punitive segregation.

While acknowledging Ponte’s work in eliminating solitary for 16- to 18-year-olds, board members expressed disappointment and frustration at the DOC’s latest request. Noting that this is the fourth request, Derek Cephas asked, "Is this going to be a continual conversation we’re going to have every three months, six months, without end?"

"I believe, Commissioner, that you want to end solitary confinement,” stated board member Bobby Cohen. "I do hope that you do."

Advocates urged the Board of Correction to reject the department’s request, noting that it had already granted repeated extensions. "How can punitive segregation be used when the Secure Unit is nearly empty?” asked Charlotte Pope of the Children’s Defense Fund, who urged that, if the board grants the request, they do so for only two months instead of the requested six.

Kelsey De Avila of the Brooklyn Defender Services recounted the experiences of Mr. S, a young man with schizoaffective disorder and a learning disorder. During his time at Rikers, when he resisted the pressure to join a gang, he was stabbed and burned. Staff refused to deescalate conflicts, issuing him infractions (or disciplinary tickets) for disobeying orders. Those tickets landed him in the Restrictive Housing Unit, a solitary unit for people with mental illness. The isolation "contributed to his decompensation and he began to experience more regular auditory and visual hallucinations." When he told staff what he was experiencing, they placed him in solitary watch, or an empty cell in which he was given nothing more than a suicide-proof smock. When he was released from suicide watch, he was placed back in isolation for the next month. He was released from Rikers back to his community.

De Avila also shared snippets of testimony from others who had spent time in isolation at Rikers.

"I understand people break the rules and there have to be consequences, but if you treat us like animals, we may as well behave like animals. We need things to rehabilitate ourselves so we can go home better, but this isolation is turning me into more of an animal." She reminded the board that the Brooklyn Defender Services had sent these comments to them earlier this year. "Not much has changed," she stated, urging the board to reject the request.

Mayor Bill de Blasio stands next to DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte (left) to announce a series of reforms on Rikers last year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio stands next to DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte (left) to announce a series of reforms on Rikers last year.
Rob Bennett / Mayoral Photography Office.

Others took issue with the newly created Secure Unit for young adults. “The Secure Unit is a series of cages,” stated Jennifer Parish, the director of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and member of the DOC’s Adolescent and Young Adult Advisory Board.

That was the one area where advocates and the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) agreed. “No matter how the Secure Unit is presented, it is in essence just cages,” Angel Castro of COBA told the board.

Unsurprisingly, COBA and advocates disagreed on how to proceed. Marc Steier, COBA’s director of legal affairs, charged that the DOC has not come up with a plan to keep people safe. "What do you do with people who have assaulted staff 20, 40, 60 times?" he said to the Voice. "If they’re 19 to 21 years old, what do you do with them?” The answer is separating those who pose a threat and have proven to be a danger.
"It’s really simple — if I can’t reach you, I can’t attack you."

In the end, the board granted Ponte an extension of three, rather than six months. It also imposed several conditions — within thirty days, the Department must provide all young adults with the option for four hours out of their cell, including two and a half hours of programming. Starting tomorrow, the department must review every young adult in punitive segregation and determine whether they can be transferred to a less restrictive unit. After a person has spent fifteen days in isolation, the DOC chief must issue a review to determine whether they can be sent to a less restrictive unit.

In addition, a young adult cannot be held in isolation for more than thirty consecutive days. After thirty days, they must be allowed out of segregation for seven days. They cannot be held for more than sixty days during a six-month period.

After the vote, Johnny Perez, a member of the Jails Action Coalition, who, as a teenager, spent sixty days in isolation at Rikers, said that he was "utterly frustrated" with both the DOC and the board. "For every single day we wait, we risk — and are — damaging the people who are sitting in those cells. How can we continue to put people’s humanity on hold?"


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