Banning solitary is saving lives

If you ask the Adams administration, there is no solitary confinement in New York City’s jails. Or there is, but it’s called punitive segregation. Or wait, it’s not punitive, it’s for safety. Or hang on, we oppose solitary confinement morally, but we need it to keep Rikers safe. Or no, Rikers is unsafe and that’s why we can’t ban solitary confinement. Clearly?

The United Nations has designated solitary confinement as torture. But just across the East River, solitary confinement is still being used on Rikers Island, where pain is policy. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding about solitary in New York City, but the reality is no matter what terminology you use, people in custody awaiting trial are facing the cruel and unusual punishment of isolation, and carrying the damage of that treatment for the rest of their lives.

By no definition is this “correction.” It’s just convenient cruelty.

Many people who have spent time in solitary continue to suffer severely from debilitating trauma long after incarceration. They leave Rikers, but they still aren’t free.

People in solitary are denied human contact and connection, denied support, and come out of these deplorable conditions worse than when they went in — and some, like Brandon Rodriguez and and Layleen Polanco don’t come out at all.

Despite what the mayor and Department of Correction argue, the city never stopped using solitary confinement. They just changed the name, hiding the practice as much in language as they do on an island, out of sight and out of mind. But our bill, scheduled for a City Council vote today, was crafted in collaboration with experts and people who have actually experienced this torture, as well as labor leadership, puts a ban in place that is clear, enforceable, and built on guidances that should already be in place.

The DOC has historically shirked oversight and accountability, creating loopholes that allow them to continue abusive practices like harmful isolation. Without clear, enforceable guidelines for what DOC can and cannot do to people in their custody, they will continue to create and exploit loopholes to maintain solitary by other names.

Our bill does not prevent removing someone from a situation where they are dangerous to themselves or others. Instead, it makes clear the process for doing so, and the minimum standards of humanity that system must follow. It puts in place a system of separation and de-escalation — not one of isolation. Our bill also presents the opportunity for programming aimed at rehabilitation and correction.

Put simply — committing an infraction in jail can cause you to lose privileges, not basic human rights. We can de-escalate conflict, and provide programs and resources to prevent future harm, or we can perpetuate it by inflicting irreparable harm to our fellow New Yorkers’ mental health. We can have the due process our legal system was founded on, or we can deny it.

No one is saying there shouldn’t be consequences for infractions in jails. But those consequences shouldn’t be carried for the rest of a person’s life. Most people detained on Rikers Island will at some point be returning to their communities. If the response to every misstep or harmful behavior is isolation, they will be unprepared for reentry. Right now, time spent in solitary is linked to increased violence in jails and increased rates of re-arrest — banning solitary is good for public safety.

The fearmongering around this bill is disingenuous, bordering on absurd. If we prohibit torture on Rikers Island, argue opponents, then Rikers will be dangerous, in a state of crisis! But as we all know, their hysterical hypothetical is already ongoing.

The problems detractors attribute to this bill had been happening for years before it’s even passed. It is true that correction officers face real challenges and have valid fears of dangers on Rikers that must be rectified — but that is not connected to a ban on solitary which hasn’t happened yet, and won’t be caused by this prohibition.

Solitary is inhumane — morally unjust, societally inexcusable, and practically ineffective at all but inflicting pain. It makes our jails less safe, and it makes our city less safe.

The opponents of this bill, the opponents of banning solitary, are trying to uphold a status quo of inhumanity, and hiding their effort in misinformation. They want us to look away from the suffering. But people have been crying out in pain for too long, and our city has to finally hear their isolated voices in one moral mandate: ban solitary now.

Williams is the New York City public advocate and a prime sponsor of the Council’s solitary confinement bill.

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