New York City

NYC jails end solitary confinement of teen inmates

December 18, 2014 By Jake Pearson Associated Press
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shakes hands with juvenile inmates as Acting Deputy Commissioner of Youthful Offenders, Adult Programming and Community Partnerships Winette Saunders-Halyard, looks on, during a tour at Second Chance Housing on Rikers Island on Wednesday in New York. The facility serves as alternative housing for incarcerated adolescents. AP Photo/The Daily News, Susan Watts, Pool
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After touring New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex for the first time since taking office, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced the end of the longstanding practice of putting 16- and 17-year-old inmates who break jailhouse rules in solitary confinement.

De Blasio made the announcement while speaking to reporters in the chapel of the Rikers facility that houses young inmates — the same facility at the center of a scathing Department of Justice report that found teenage inmates were too often placed in 23-hour confinement and beaten by jail guards.

Instead of isolation, young inmates who break jailhouse rules will now be sent to two new units where they’ll receive a range of services from one-on-one therapy to programming that teaches decision making, de Blasio said.

“We know some people come here from very tough circumstances. We know people come here who have made mistakes, in many cases very dire mistakes,” the mayor said. “But our job is not to write them off — it is to see if we can bring them back.”

There were 91 adolescents in solitary on Jan. 1, the day de Blasio took office, and they were all moved out of solitary by Dec. 4, the mayor said.

New York’s jail system, the nation’s second largest, has come under increased scrutiny this year after The Associated Press first reported the horrific deaths of two mentally ill inmates and other problems at Rikers.

The city is still negotiating with federal prosecutors following their August review of conditions for adolescent inmates at the Robert N. Davoren Complex, which included 18-year-olds, Commissioner Joseph Ponte said. There are dozens of 18-year-old inmates at Rikers, who are no longer grouped with 16- and 17-year-old inmates, still serving time in solitary confinement in other jail facilities.

But the end of solitary was just one of 73 recommendations made by federal prosecutors to curb violence, improve investigations, strengthen accountability and reduce the use of solitary confinement for inmates who break jailhouse rules.

In court papers, Attorney General Eric Holder and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara wrote that despite four months of negotiations with the city, federal prosecutors “have been unable to reach agreement as to lasting, verifiable, and enforceable reforms.”

The lawsuit seeks a court-enforceable consent decree is issued by a judge to ensure the reforms take place and notes that the city has now agreed to such intervention.

In a statement, mayoral spokeswoman Marti Adams said the city didn’t oppose the federal intervention and reiterated de Blasio’s commitment to reform.

“We are beginning to unwind the decades of neglect that have led to unacceptable levels of violence onRikers Island,” she said.

The court papers show federal prosecutors are hoping to join a federal class-action lawsuit that similarly claims widespread guard brutality in facilities that house adult inmates. They argued that combining the two actions “will facilitate much needed reforms at Rikers in the fastest and most efficient manner.”

Bharara said at a news conference that negotiations with the city have gone well, but “we think things can go faster.”

“In our view, much, much more needs to be done to safeguard inmates at Rikers Island,” he said. 

De Blasio and his reform-minded commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have recently touted measures they say point to a change in direction for the nation’s second-largest jail system. Those include capping solitary stints to 30 days from 90 days, decreasing the staff-to-inmate ration in juvenile facilities from 33-to-1 to 15-to-1 and the securing of funds to add surveillance videos over the next two years.

But the federal complaint says those reforms have yet to reach 18-year-olds. It noted there have been 71 reported use-of-force incidents against 18-year-olds between September and November in facilities without surveillance cameras. As of last month, at least 40 of them were being held in solitary confinement.

Jail officials have been “deliberately indifferent to harm” of the young inmates by failing to make sure incidents are properly reported, failing to appoint enough supervisors, failing to conduct thorough investigations and failing to discipline staff for using excessive force, the lawsuit says. 

New York’s 11,000 daily inmate jail system has come under increased scrutiny this year since The Associated Press first reported the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates at Rikers and other problems.

Subsequent investigations by the news media, city investigators and lawmakers have drawn attention to the jails, whose problems de Blasio has said were decades in the making and will not be changed overnight.

Bharara’s lawsuit seeks immediate cultural change at Rikers. The culture described in the complaint is one in which jail guards will yell “stop resisting” when beating an inmate, use abusive language to provoke inmate fights, intimidate inmates into not reporting beatings by pressuring them to “hold it down,” and failing to employ even basic investigative steps to verify incident report forms.

Vanita Gupta, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights for the Department of Justice, said the problems at Rikers have shown up in “far too many places” across the country.

“Rikers is not alone,” she said.

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