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Mayor de Blasio vows end of solitary confinement in New York City jails

June 30, 2020 Rosa Goldensohn and Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on June 25 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

New York City will soon stop using solitary confinement in city jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared Monday as he invoked the death of Layleen Polanco last year at Rikers Island.

After resisting calls for change for more than a year, the mayor announced the creation of a “working group” charged with devising a plan to eradicate solitary confinement.

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The four-person panel will have “a simple mandate: find a way to end solitary confinement,” de Blasio said during a virtual news conference.

Layleen Polanco in a photo from 2012. Photo via Facebook

The historic move marks a victory for detainees and their advocates who say the practice of holding people alone in cells for hours on end without meaningful human contact amounts to torture.

De Blasio cited the case of Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement last June after a seizure, as a catalyst for the change.

“We have to right the wrong,” he said. “We can’t bring her back but we can make change so that no one else goes through such a tragedy.”

‘A Step Toward Justice’

Polanco’s sister Melania Brown called the mayor’s announcement a “step toward justice.”

“This is a beginning to a just world,” she said. “I’m glad that he is hearing our voices.”

The recent anniversary of Polanco’s June 7, 2019, death came amid ongoing protests against police and for the Black Lives Matter movement. Her name became a rallying cry last year and her image adorned posters at a march for Black trans lives in Brooklyn this month.

Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, center, took part in a Brooklyn march for Black trans lives on June 14. Courtesy of Melania Brown

The city will also immediately tighten medical restrictions for people going into so-called punitive segregation, excluding people with asthma, people who use wheelchairs and those who have seizures, according to a slide the mayor showed.

Inmates with serious medical conditions are already supposed to be banned from solitary under DOC rules.

Polanco, who had a seizure disorder, died on her ninth day of a 20-day sentence in solitary.

She was placed in solitary over a doctor’s objections, according to a scathing report released last week by the city’s Board of Correction. The report also found that city jail housing policy for transgender inmates like Polanco created “increased pressure” to isolate her.

“Layleen Polanco should not have been in solitary confinement,” de Blasio said Monday. “Lord knows she deserves justice. The family deserves justice. The transgender community deserves justice.”

Polanco was jailed in lieu of $500 bail for misdemeanor sex work and drug possession charges. An undercover cop picked her up at a West Side hotel, a criminal complaint shows. De Blasio noted that she “should not have been in Rikers to begin with.”

The #HALTSolitary campaign, which released its own plan for ending solitary in the city last October, said the mayor could have eliminated the practice immediately.

“While we welcome Mayor de Blasio acknowledging the need to end solitary confinement in New York City jails, the time for working groups and discussions has long passed,” they said.

“The mayor should have announced today that the Board of Correction — which has purportedly been working on rules to restrict solitary confinement for three years — would be voting on proposed rules in line with the community plan to fully eliminate solitary at its upcoming July 14 meeting.”

Stanley Richards, the Board of Correction vice-chair, hailed the mayor’s announcement.

“This work is long overdue,” he said, noting he spent time in solitary confinement. “I feel like we are all pulling in the same direction. The mayor has taken a huge step forward.”

Change in Words, Too

The mayor on Monday used the phrases “solitary confinement” and “punitive segregation” interchangeably, despite his press staff and Department of Correction officials’ previous insistence that the city’s punitive segregation practices did not amount to solitary.

Polanco was assigned to a “restrictive housing unit” that is both technically a form of punitive segregation and was, THE CITY found, part and parcel of the rest of the women’s solitary wing. But DOC staff argued just this month in an email that the RHU is not a form of punitive segregation.

The semantic struggle highlights the importance of the practical details of the future prohibition.

The working group on ending solitary will be composed of Board of Correction Vice-Chair Stanley Richards, Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann, a representative from the correction officers union, and DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of incarcerated people.

The mayor said he is expecting a report back in the fall from the group on how to proceed with ending solitary confinement in the city and will begin to implement the group’s recommendations from there.

A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Courtesy of the Department of Correction

The administration in 2015 ended punitive segregation for people under age 22 and for those with serious mental illness.

As a result, the city has drastically reduced the number of inmates in solitary confinement, from 1,000 in 2011 during the Bloomberg administration to currently around 125 as of last week, according to the Board of Correction.

The unions representing jail officers have long opposed limiting or eliminating solitary confinement as a form of punishment. The mayor’s move will “get somebody killed,” predicted Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains’ Association.

“It’s unbelievable with everything going on, and all the crime that you see, when is he going to get that not everybody does the right thing,” he added. “Ending punitive segregation is a huge mistake and very dangerous.”

Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association, contends that limiting solitary confinement will “embolden the troublemakers,”

“It’s baffling to me that they would do this but law and order does not seem to be the mayor’s priority,” Russo said. “It seems like he and other lawmakers want to pander to the lawbreakers.”

Other lockups have used alternatives like added programming and taking away recreation yard bonus time as a punishment. Inmates sentenced to solitary are only kept there for a few hours, and are placed in large cells with glass doors and plenty of natural light.

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