Starting Tuesday, 19- to 21-year-olds in New York City’s jails will no longer be placed in solitary confinement or, as jail and prison officials call it, punitive segregation, a practice in which people are confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours each day.
“This is an unprecedented milestone in New York State correctional history and even more importantly across the nation,” wrote Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Department of Correction, in a letter to the Board of Correction, the city agency tasked with monitoring jail conditions and approving minimum standards. “To date, no other State has accomplished comparable punitive segregation reforms.” Three months earlier, the department ended punitive segregation for 18-year-olds, the first jail system in the nation to eliminate the practice for that age group.
But advocates aren’t celebrating just yet. As the department worked toward eliminating segregation for 19- to 21-year-olds, it built a new 64-bed Secure Unit and gained tentative approval to place young adults into its 250-bed Enhanced Supervision Housing unit. That variance was set to expire yesterday. At a Board of Correction meeting yesterday, Commissioner Ponte requested an extension on the variance and indicated that he would soon be seeking approval to build an Enhanced Supervised Housing unit specifically for 18- to 21-year-olds.
Currently, four young adults between the ages of 19 and 21 are held in Enhanced Supervision, where they are allowed out of their cells seven hours each day — four hours of programming, one hour of recreation, and two hours of socializing in the unit’s day room. If a person wishes to attend school, those three hours are deducted from his out-of-cell time. In contrast, young adults in the Secure Unit are allowed ten to fourteen hours out of their cells each day.
“This looks a lot like punitive segregation,” stated Judge Bryanne Hamill, a member of the Board of Correction and chair of the department’s Adolescent and Young Adult Advisory Board (AYAAB), a mix of department officials and community advocates created to help guide policies for those age groups.
Hamill reminded her colleagues that the board had agreed to the proposed seven hours out of cell because the department had said it could not safely allow large numbers of people out of cell at once. She attempted to add a condition that the three hours of school time not be deducted from a young person’s seven hours out of cell.
“I don’t see any therapeutic benefit, since it’s the programing that makes a difference,” Ponte replied. Hamill’s proposed condition was voted down by the majority of her board colleagues.
Kelsey De Avila, the jail services social worker with Brooklyn Defender Services, expressed “serious concerns about the increasing number of restricted units” for young adults and urged the board to reject the department’s request. She also noted that AYAAB members, who met last Tuesday, were not provided a copy of the request until this past weekend.
After listening to over two hours of discussion, the board voted six to two to allow the department to continue including young adults, including 18-year-olds, in its Enhanced Supervised Housing. Moments after the vote, citing the department’s failure to inform her of its intentions, Hamill announced her resignation as chair of the AYAAB committee.
Advocates expressed concern that the alternatives simply continue segregation, but under different names. Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, told the Voice, “Our goal has never been to eliminate the term ‘punitive segregation,’ but to eliminate the unconscionable conditions that it has been used to describe.”
She added, “With the dizzying array of administrative segregation units put forward recently by DOC, our clients — of all ages — continue to be held in horrific conditions, including isolation, while in custody.”
Hamill and jail rights advocates were not the only ones with qualms about these changes. Those who had worked in the city’s jails doubt the new units’ ability to ensure safety. Mark Cranston served as the DOC’s acting commissioner before Ponte’s appointment and is now the director of New Jersey’s Middlesex County Department of Corrections as well as a consultant for the correctional officers union (COBA). Instead of eliminating segregation, he urged that it be utilized “only when absolutely necessary, in the least restrictive manner possible and for the shortest duration possible.”
Albert Craig, a correctional officer of twenty years and the first citywide trustee for COBA, echoed that sentiment. Noting that his brother died while incarcerated in the Brooklyn Detention Complex, he praised some of the new programs offered but reminded the board, “All these programs you want to put in place don’t work without safety.”
COBA president Elias Husamudeen did not speak before the board, but issued a statement condemning the department’s move. “Ending Punitive Segregation is another way of saying it is open season on Correction officers and an invitation for inmates to increase their terrorist attacks on correction officers, civilians, and other inmates.”
In a statement to the board before the vote, Dale Wilker of the Legal Aid Society warned them, “We should not forget that security can go too far. You can’t isolate a person forever.”