Rikers Island detainees awarded $53M in solitary confinement lawsuit

April 25, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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New York City has agreed to a settlement of up to $53 million for approximately 4,400 individuals who were detained in highly restrictive housing at Rikers Island and other city jails, violating guidelines set by a city jail watchdog agency.

The settlement brings an end to the Miller v. City of New York case, filed in 2021, which claimed that detainees were held in city jails on Rikers Island and in Manhattan between 2018 and 2022, in violation of their due process rights.

The class-action lawsuit focused on those detained in two Rikers Island jails — the West Facility and North Infirmary Command — and a 9th-floor unit at the Tombs in lower Manhattan. Conditions in these units included small cage-like annexes for exercise, 23-hour daily confinement in cells, and a lack of recreation, natural light, and day room access — all required by the city’s minimum standards.

Despite warnings from the city Board of Correction, the lawsuit alleged that the Correction Department failed to adhere to city regulations and disregarded detainees’ rights to hearings before placing them in these restrictive units.

The settlement provides an average compensation of around $9,000 per plaintiff, depending on the length of solitary confinement.

Attorneys Alex Reinert and Eric Hecker, who represented the detainees, hope the litigation will ensure the permanent cessation of these practices and provide deserved compensation to those affected. A City Law Department spokesperson stated that the settlement serves the best interests of all parties, adding that the practices leading to the litigation have since been modified.

“It is outrageous that New York City’s jails locked thousands of people in solitary confinement by calling it a different name,” said a statement issued by the #HALTsolitary Campaign. “This has been a long-standing practice and still today DOC continues to use various forms of solitary confinement, from shower cages to so-called de-escalation units to structurally restrictive housing and more. Whatever their name, these different forms of solitary continue to cause devastating harm and death, while worsening safety for everyone in jails and outside communities.”

#HALTsolitary went on to call for the passage of a bill, Int 0549-2022, that it said would end solitary confinement in all its forms, by all its names, and to utilize alternative forms of separation proven to better protect people’s health and improve safety.

Last month, the Correctional Association of New York (CANY) released a report highlighting widespread violations of the HALT Solitary Confinement Law by prison officials, as well as alleged staff abuse aimed at undermining the law.

The HALT Law was enacted in 2019 to limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. Despite the law leading to a reduction in the use of Special Housing Units (SHU), the report states that the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is systematically violating nearly every aspect of the law.

The report found instances of holding individuals in SHU beyond the 15-day legal limit and subjecting people with mental health needs to solitary confinement. State Senator Julia Salazar called for the immediate implementation of the law and an end to holding people in solitary for minor rule violations.

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