City Council passes bill to track and limit the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island

Khorri Atkinson | 8/28/2014, 11:57 a.m.

It was after visiting solitary confinement cells at Rikers Island and being greeted by “very small cells with graffitied walls, the smelling of urine, rusted beds with mattresses with mildew on them and a very small window letting in just a little bit of light” that induced City Councilman Daniel Dromm to draft legislation that could improve conditions inmates have been enduring for years.

Last Thursday, the City Council unanimously passed a bill, Intro. 292-A, and a resolution that calls on the Department of Corrections to issue four reports annually about Rikers Island inmates in solitary confinement, including why and for how long they are held there, whether they ever attempted suicide or were assaulted and the state of their mental health. The resolution specifically orders the DOC to end solitary confinement for those who are returning to jail.

The reports will be reviewed by council members, who then will determine if new policies need to be implemented at the correctional facility.

“These two pieces of legislation will help push New York City to radically rethink how we deal with individuals incarcerated at Rikers Island and other city jails. Change begins with dispelling the darkness that has caused the practice of solitary confinement,” said Dromm before the City Council Thursday.

He said the collection of the data from the report will boost the effort to reform “a very broken system.”

“The personal stories that we heard, the conditions at Rikers Island that we witnessed and the evidence of mistreatment has compelled us as a council to act,” he added.

At a rally at City Hall, three days before the council’s vote, Dromm said both measures were introduced in the City Council in 2012 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, but failed to reach the floor for a vote. He then re-introduced both last April, “because there is a commitment from the mayor and the council speaker to see them move forward,” said Dromm. “I have other pieces of legislation that will look on other issues at Rikers, but right now, solitary confinement is a bigger issue.”

Joined by three council members, former inmates and jail reformers at the rally, Public Advocate Leticia James asserted that “to call this facility a correctional facility is an oxymoron. They’re not correcting anything, any behavior. We need to get back to the original intent of the facility, and Rikers Island should not be a housing program for those who are mentally challenged.”

James noted that her office has received “a number of complaints about the DOC,” and as a result of a parent who called her and claimed that their son was abused, James said she contacted the facility “for a visit immediately and I was refused. So I say to the mayor: It’s time to review and do an inspection on Rikers Island.”

City officials said 77 percent of inmates at Rikers suffered injuries, and more that 80 percent are not convicted and have been waiting for numbers of years to see a judge. A number of the inmates at the facility have been locked up for nonviolent crimes, they said. Dromm highlighted that 40 percent of the inmates have mental issues, while up to 11,000 inmates are in punitive segregation for 23 hours a day.

The call to reform the facility comes on the heels of several recent reports, including severe allegations that officers routinely abuse inmates and expose them to violent and inhumane conditions. One of those reports was sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Justice. They lashed intense criticisms against jail officials for their “deep-seated culture of violence” and using excessive solitary confinement against adolescent inmates.

The report suggested that Bloomberg’s administration failed to provide oversight and the use of force “is particularly common in areas without video surveillance cameras.” It concluded that “this pattern and practice of conduct violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.”

Before the vote last Thursday, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito lauded Dromm’s reform efforts and echoed that the DOJ’s report “highlights the need for more accountability and helps makes it possible with heightened transparency. Obviously there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in this area, and I’m glad we’re working on this.”

The DOJ’s findings involved Dakeem Roberts, a former Rikers Island inmate who was locked up at age 16. He recalled that officers allowed inmates to abuse each other. “They create a culture of violence, using gangs to control the prison,” he said. “The violence that was done against me, they used inmates to jump me and to beat me down. “

The legislation now awaits de Blasio’s signature to become law. A spokesperson for de Blasio recently confirmed the mayor’s support of the bill. After being signed into law, the first report on the facility will be released Jan. 20, 2015. It will cover the last quarter of 2014.

DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has been in his post since April, announced his support and plans to reform the facility. However, Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, opposed the call to reform Rikers Island’s use of solitary confinement. He argued that Dromm’s reform measures are “arbitrary and capricious.”