New York City advocates rally to end solitary confinement after another jail death

October 6, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, City Councilmembers, survivors of solitary confinement and family members rallied Thursday to press the City Council and Mayor to pass Intro. No. 549, a bill aimed at ending solitary confinement in New York City jails.

The push for reform gains new urgency following the reported death of Manish Kunwar, a 27-year-old with mental health needs, at Rikers Island. This marks the ninth such death in city jails this year.

Intro. No. 549 enjoys a veto-proof supermajority and the backing of Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. If passed, the bill would prohibit solitary confinement and promote alternative forms of separation designed to improve inmates’ health and well-being.

“The status quo is not working,” Williams said. “The status quo did not work for Layleen Polanco. It did not work for the person who died today. Let’s get it done now. So we can save some lives.”

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Various City Councilmembers voiced their support for the bill, citing solitary confinement as a form of torture incompatible with the city’s goals for criminal justice. Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D–Lower Manhattan) emphasized the need for a comprehensive ecosystem of social supports, mental health care and substance use disorder services.

“The consensus is clear among faiths and countries across the world: Solitary confinement is torture, and every day our city allows this practice is a grave sin,” said Councilmember Shahana Hanif (D-Kensington-Windsor Terrace-Park Slope).

“We have the legislation to end this torturous practice, and we have the votes to pass it; all we need is Intro 549 to come to a vote.”

Concerns raised by family members and survivors were grim. Mauricia Harry, whose brother was once in solitary, pointed out that even if an inmate doesn’t enter solitary with a mental health issue, they often develop one during confinement.

“This is a travesty,” said Victor Pate, co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign. “We are talking about human rights and constitutional rights. No one should be treated inhumanely. No one should be subject to torture. Just because you are incarcerated doesn’t mean you can be treated like an animal. So why are our people being treated inhumanely and being exposed to torture in solitary confinement?”

The bill has widespread public and political support, including from the entire New York City federal House delegation and 74 state lawmakers. A national poll showed a 32-point margin in favor of ending solitary confinement, with support crossing party lines.

Research indicates that even a short stint in solitary can lead to significantly heightened risks of various forms of harm, including death. In recent years, deaths of individuals like Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco have ignited public outcry against the use of solitary confinement, casting a spotlight on its devastating effects.

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