NYC Doubles Down on Solitary Confinement with Latest Rikers “Reforms”


The AP reports that the NYC Board of Correction (BOC) will vote this coming Tuesday on changes to solitary confinement on Rikers Island, including a new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for the prison’s “most dangerous” inmates and policies that seek to limit punitive segregation for other inmates, particularly the mentally ill and juveniles aged 16-21.

The proposed BOC rules also include:

  • Ending isolation for ‘owed time
  • Ending isolation for ‘minor offenses’
  • Exempting ‘seriously mentally ill’
  • Exempting juveniles aged 16-17
  • Capping solitary confinement at 30 days
  • Additional training for ESHU guards

The announcement of a $14.8 million ESHU is the latest piece of Mayor de Blasio’s Rikers Island reform package, and it is complicated by the fact that we don’t know what the programming or therapy regimen for its prisoners will look like. Such proposals are supposed to come out later this year. However, a former head of the Dept. of Mental Health & Hygeine voiced his skepticism over the plan when he testified at a public hearing last month, noting that “previous attempts to create special housing units for troublesome inmates that similarly claimed would provide therapeutic services ultimately turned into restrictive, punitive holding pens.”

And if you dig into the document, you can begin to see what he’s talking about.

Dangerous Loopholes in ESHU Eligibility

The BOC writes that eligibility for the ESHU will be limited to prisoners who, in the past 5 years, have:

  1. Been identified as leaders of gangs and have participated in dangerous gang-related activity;
  2. Organized or participated in gang-related assaults;
  3. Committed slashings or stabbings or who have committed repeated assaults, have seriously injured another, or have rioted or actively participated in inmate disturbances while in Department custody or otherwise incarcerated;
  4. Been found in possession of scalpels or weapons that pose a level of danger similar to or greater than that of a scalpels while in Department custody or otherwise incarcerated;
  5. Engaged in serious or persistent violence;
  6. While in Department custody or otherwise incarcerated, engaged in repeated activity or behavior presenting great danger, and such activity or behavior has a direct, identifiable and adverse impact on the safety and security of the facility.

The first concern here is the reliance on the classification of “gang member” or “leader.” The Center for Constitutional Rights notes that prisoners can be labeled gang members for “waiving hello to another prisoner who has already been so-designated, or for possession of artwork, or their tattoos,” and such alleged affiliations have been used to place inmates in indefinite isolation.

Criteria 3 and 6 should also be approached with immense caution, specifically the isolation of those who have “actively participated in inmate disturbances” and “engaged in repeated activity or behavior presenting great danger [that] has a direct, identifiable and adverse impact on the safety and security of the facility.” Does this mean peaceful resistance by prisoners — such as the demonstration that took place recently in Youngstown, OH — could earn them a ticket to the ESHU? Because to me, that threat seems like a serious abridgment of speech for ALL NYC prisoners.

Such protection gaps extend to young inmates aged 18-21, who could find themselves eligible for stints in isolation despite lofty pledges to reduce and even eliminate its use against juvenile prisoners.

The BOC writes:

For both punitive segregation and the new enhanced supervision housing unit, the board recognizes that such housing presents a serious and unacceptable threat to the physical and mental health of certain categories of inmates, namely inmates of certain ages and those who suffer from serious physical or serious mental disabilities or conditions. For these reasons, the rule amendments prohibit inmates under the age of 21 (except for those aged 18 to 21 who have committed grade 1 infractions) from being sentenced to punitive segregation (as of October 15, 2015) and enhanced supervision housing.

That is a very large hole in a net that was supposedly designed to keep juvenile prisoners out of isolation. There are a wide array of Grade I infractions, and I can easily imagine situations in which many of them could be abused to wrongfully justify placing a 18-21 year old inmate in isolation, such as: possessing or selling items considered contraband, leading or participating in “boycotts, work stoppages, or other demonstrations that interrupt the routine of the facility,” destruction of property and unauthorized assembly.

And given Rikers horrific legacy of employing abusive and corrupt guards to oversee its juvenile prisoners, I can see Grade I infractions being manipulated to give young inmates solitary time for allegedly assaulting, disobeying or disrespecting notoriously violent staff, even if it’s in self-defense.

Fox Given Carte Blanche to Guard Hen House

The BOC writes that inmates with ‘serious mental or serious physical disabilities or conditions’ can’t be isolated, but “declined to set forth a list of disabilities and conditions, mental or physical, the diagnosis of which would trigger an inmate’s automatic exclusion from punitive segregation and enhanced supervision housing.”

Instead, the BOC is empowering “the health and mental health service […] to determine, on an individual basis, whether an inmate’s disability or condition requires exclusion.”

Unless I’m mistaken, that would mean the city is giving Corizon Health Services free reign to decide who is too mentally or physically ill to be sent to the ESHU. To make matters worse, they’re not willing to give even a minimum standard for defining what state a prisoner must be in to be ineligible for isolation.

By outsourcing this to Corizon, the city has put its mentally ill inmates directly back in harms way, and all of the overtures we’ve been hearing about improving conditions for such people in and out of the criminal justice system should be mocked. Corizon has failed on dozens of occasions to provide routine treatment to mentally and physically ill prisoners on Rikers and other prisons around the country. These are the same folks who are responsible for the preventable deaths of at least 15 inmates in the last 5 years on Rikers Island — some of which died while in solitary confinement under Corizon’s supervision! And the BOC wants to vest them with the power to decide if prisoners are fit for solitary without guidance or outside opinion? This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.

A Jail Within a Jail

Sadly, what NYC officials are currently selling as “solitary reform” is anything but. The rule changes leave several yawning protection gaps for young and mentally ill prisoners, and the announcement of the ESHU is a sign that the city has doubled down on the practice of isolating prisoners, despite Rikers’ own history of abusing the tactic and a growing body of evidence underscoring the immense harm it causes.

At the very least, the plan invites abuse as CO’s look to fill beds in this expensive new unit with its own dedicated and trained staff. Calling the move “the creation of a jail within a jail,” Former prisoner and president of Ex-Offender Nation Evie Litwok wrote:

To move forward with the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit would be giving the very same correctional officers who have defied civility and humanity for several decades the right to continue to disregard, disrespect, and abuse the almost 15,000 detainees held there who have not even been convicted of a crime, but are merely awaiting trial. And these same officers want the mayor to put the 250 most “dangerous” criminals into that unit when we have no evidence there are 250 such people.

She’s exactly right. And even if we did have 250 “such people,” there’s no evidence that subjecting them to isolation does anything other than harm them and exacerbate their problems, reducing safety and security for everyone at Rikers in the long-run. Isolation doesn’t seem to make these violent and disobedient prisoners any less violent or disobedient as it is. What’s the point in creating a whole new unit to try the same dangerous and disproven tactic?

This was a shamefully shallow attempt at tackling one of the biggest pillars of brutality on Rikers Island, and New Yorkers should pack the public hearing and tell it to their faces on Tuesday before the BOC takes a vote.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
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