The City Council is set to hear a bill on Friday that would end solitary confinement in NYC jails as criminal justice advocates say the de Blasio administration is lagging on its own plan to do so.
Queens City Councilmember Danny Dromm's measure would ban locking someone in a cell alone as punishment for a violent offense unless it is used as an immediate measure to de-escalate conflict, according to the bill. Incarcerated individuals would only be allowed to be isolated for four hours after the conflict.
Inmates could still be placed in restrictive housing—the same type of unit where the late Layleen Cubilette-Polanco was housed for nine days before she died of epileptic seizures after guards failed to properly check in on her. But Dromm's bill requires that inmates have a hearing with legal counsel before being placed in restrictive housing, with a review every 15 days of "whether the incarcerated person continues to present a significant threat to the safety and security of the facility if housed outside restrictive housing," the legislation reads.
"Misbehavior on the part of incarcerated folks should not require the use of torture to correct that misbehavior," Dromm told Gothamist/WNYC.
Advocates of the #HALTsolitary Campaign want to strengthen the bill further. The language currently allows for 14 hours of out-of-cell time per day for most inmates, except for those in restrictive housing, who would be permitted 10 hours out of their cells a day. Inmates isolated from others are currently permitted seven hours of out-of-cell time.
"[F]or this legislation to actually be effective at ending solitary, there should be no carve outs," a member of the campaign and survivor of solitary confinement, Anisah Sabur, said in a statement. "The basic minimum standards in the city jails of 14 hours out-of-cell per day with access to meaningful human engagement and programming should apply to everyone."
Cubilette-Polanco's sister, Melania Brown, said families of those who have died in solitary haven't been fully included in discussions on ending the segregation measures.
"My sister went into solitary and came out in a body bag," Brown said. "How many people have to die before they end this torture?"
Dromm says the bill could still be altered after feedback at a council committee hearing on Friday.
The correction officer union vehemently opposes the legislation.
"That really has serious implications for the victims of these crimes," said Correction Officers' Benevolent Association [COBA] spokesperson Michael Skelly. "The correction officers union strongly believes that this legislation is as great a threat to the safety of our members, and everyone in the jails, as the violent inmates who are committing these attacks."
In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio formed a working group to end punitive segregation after the city announced 17 correction officers would face disciplinary action for Cubilette-Polanco's death. The Board of Correction was anticipated to hold a hearing on the jail practice in October, but has not yet held one. In November, the chair of the oversight agency said the rule was being drafted and a 30-day comment period would follow soon after.
BOC spokesperson Bennett Stein said the agency expects to publish a proposed rule to end solitary this month.
Violence between inmates has risen 284% in the last fiscal year, which the city has attributed to a change in record-keeping and a jail population with a higher proportion of people accused of violent crimes. A recent federal monitor report of the city jail system found use of force incidents are also rising due to "hyper-confrontational" staff behaviors and over-reliance on jail riot squads.
Dromm says, "I think that the use of violence to supposedly end violence is an incorrect theory to begin with. It just doesn't make sense."
The Department of Correction referred our inquiries to City Hall. Mayoral spokesperson Avery Cohen said in a statement the administration is still "fully committed to ending punitive segregation."
"To fulfill this goal, we’ll continue working with stakeholders in government and those with lived experience to create a system that ensures the safety and wellbeing of staff and people in custody," Cohen said.