Inmates are placed in solitary confinement at Rikers Island for “inexcusably extreme” amounts of time, a new report charges, “egregiously disproportionate” to the infractions they are alleged to have committed. While in solitary, it can be difficult for inmates to get access to the most basic of services, including food, showers, and phone time. That’s according to the Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense nonprofit that represents several hundred thousand people in the Bronx each year. They’ve just released “Voices From the Box,” a report on the conditions their clients experienced in solitary at Rikers, New York City’s largest jail facility.
The Bronx Defenders interviewed 59 of their clients, 54 male and five female, about their experiences in solitary. Over half the clients were between the ages of 16 and 20 when they were sent into isolation. That jibes with a scathing report produced by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara earlier this summer, which found a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teenage inmates at the jail, as well as the “excessive and inappropriate” use of solitary. In their interviews, the Bronx Defenders authors found that most of their clients were sentenced to more than 15 days in solitary. They add that it was disturbingly easy for that time to stretch out indefinitely. One 18-year-old client faced over 1,000 days in isolation. They write:
In a pattern that repeated itself many times over, clients recounted being sent to “the box” for an initial period that generally ranged from 30 to 90 days, only to find that once they were in solitary it became incredibly easy to receive additional tickets for minor offenses and various perceived slights against correction officers. As a result, many clients reported astoundingly high total ticket times that they had accumulated in large part from infractions that they were accused of committing while held in solitary confinement. Michael, an 18-year-old client facing over 1,000 days in solitary, recounted how he received additional tickets each week but felt that he needed to act out in order to receive basic services.
A high percentage of the clients the Bronx Defenders interviewed had a history of mental health issues: about 72 percent of the male inmates and four out of five of the female ones. They say that the clients not only didn’t receive proper mental health treatment in solitary, but that the conditions there precipitated new issues: “These clients received mental health services that were egregiously inadequate for treating not only preexisting mental illnesses but also the ongoing trauma brought on by extreme isolation,” they write. Counseling sessions were often exceedingly brief, and seem to have been conducted only for the purpose of determining whether an inmate was planning to hurt himself. The counseling often took place through the door of a cell. Again, that squares with an investigation undertaken by the New York Times earlier this summer, which found exceptional brutality and overuse of solitary for mentally ill inmates.
Many of the Bronx Defenders inmates also reported serious concerns about the quality and quantity of food in solitary, saying the meals there were scanty. Many reported losing significant amounts of weight. And there were other, more disturbing issues, they add: “Multiple clients reported skipping meals after correction officers spat in their food or intimated that they had tainted the food with various bodily fluids.”
The Rikers brass and Mayor Bill de Blasio have already vowed to undertake serious reforms at the jail. On August 28, the mayor signed a bill that would require the jail to issue quarterly reports, available online, about the use of solitary. Newish Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte released a proposed series of reforms for Rikers on September 9, saying he’d reduce the backlog of inmates who “owe” time in solitary and introduce alternative forms of punishment. The practice would be scrapped altogether for 16- and 17-year-old inmates, he said.
The Bronx Defenders argue that solitary confinement should be ended altogether, pointing out that a United Nations report said that solitary for a period of 15 days or more constitutes torture. In the meantime, they’ve proposed a series of reforms, saying the practice should be ended entirely for inmates under 25 and people with mental health issues. In general, they add, inmates shouldn’t be placed in isolation for more than 15 days at a time, and no more than 60 days in any 180-day period. The jail should end the practice of “owed time,” where inmates can be sent back to solitary for infractions they’ve allegedly committed during previous stints at Rikers. “Meaningful” mental health counseling should be available, given how frequently even previously healthy inmates in solitary express suicidal thoughts.
The organization also calls for inmates facing solitary confinement to have attorneys present at hearings where they’re sentenced to time in solitary, and to have an actual judge preside over those hearings. But most of all, the Bronx Defenders are asking the jail to consider alternatives to solitary; one example they cite is a more hospital-like setting used for some mentally ill inmates, which provides access to outdoor recreation time and one-on-one sessions with counselors.
Solitary isn’t just bad for inmates, the Bronx Defenders argue. It also exposes corrections officers “to an increased risk of violence by forcing them to interact with individuals who have experienced serious psychological trauma.” And it’s bad for the public, they say, “greatly impairing” people who will one day be released from jail and back into the city.