On the heels of a pair of damning reports, officials say the Rikers Island jail complex will phase out the use of solitary confinement among inmates as young as 16 and 17 years old by the end of the year. The change was first reported by the New York Times, which obtained a memo announcing plans to end the practice written by Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio.
According to the Times, the September 25 memo says that “punitive segregation,” as the Department of Correction terms solitary confinement, will be replaced by “alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior, and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.” The memo did not offer any indication of what those alternative options may be.
The proposed policy change comes 52 days after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara released a scathing report declaring that Rikers Island uses solitary confinement at an “alarming rate and for excessive periods of time,” at the risk of “significant psychological, physical, and developmental harm to adolescents.”
On any given day in 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s office found, between 15 and 25 percent of adolescents at Rikers were held in solitary confinement, most for several months at a time. About three-quarters of those inmates, the report noted, qualified as “seriously or moderately mentally ill.”
For a prisoner at Rikers Island, solitary confinement means 23 hours a day in a tiny six-feet-by-eight-feet cell. The 24th hour is designated for “recreational time,” but, as the U.S. Attorney’s report noted, many inmates are too dejected to bother with it at all. “Recreational time is spent in individual chain-link cages, and many inmates choose to remain in their cells due to depression or because they do not want to submit to being searched and shackled just to be outside in a cage.”
A second report released by the Bronx Defenders two weeks ago, based on interviews with 59 of their clients inside Rikers — most of whom were still awaiting trial — found that while most were reprimanded with somewhere between 61 and 90 days in “the box,” some clients spent in excess of 1,000 days in solitary confinement. (The United Nations considers anything more than 15 days in solitary confinement “torture.”)
Ponte, who was appointed in March, has a reputation as a solitary-confinement reformer. As the head of Maine’s Department of Corrections, he reduced the use of solitary confinement by more than 60 percent.
“You have the commitment of this agency, and my own personal commitment, to drastically improve the level of safety and services offered to adolescents at Rikers Island,” Ponte promised in the September 25 memo.