A lawsuit filed on March 12th in the eastern district of New York claims that the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) withheld important records from a federally-mandated disability advocate after they learned guards had brutally attacked a developmentally disabled juvenile inmate at the Robert N. Davoren Complex on Rikers Island.
Disability Rights New York is suing the Department of Corrections for records on a young inmate known only as “AB,” who told the group during a monitoring visit that he was “physically assaulted by corrections staff on or about December 9, 2014.”
As the lawsuit explains:
A.B. reported to DRNY that, on or about December 9, 2014, a corrections officer told A.B. that he was speaking disrespectfully.
A.B. reported to DRNY that he was led to a room, and he was punched and kicked by one or more corrections officers.
A.B. reported to DRNY that he was seen by medical staff at RNDC and was transferred to Elmhurst Hospital for evaluation and treatment of injuries to his face and elbow, and was hospitalized overnight.
DRNY requested AB’s medical records, security camera footage and incident reports from the Depts. of Health and Mental Hygeine (DOHMH) and DOC, the complaint states. DOHMH promptly provided the documents, but the DOC allegedly refused, claiming they could not be released while an internal investigation was still ongoing. Continue reading
A bill introduced in the Montana House of Representatives this week would curb the use of isolation in state prisons. The Montana Solitary Confinement Reform Act (or House Bill 490) was introduced by Democrat Jenny Eck and would ban solitary confinement for people under the age of 18 and those with severe mental illness. It would also introduce due process and appeal measures for inmates facing solitary and require weekly mental health evaluations for isolated inmates.
Over much of the past decade, prisoners in Montana have endured anguish and abuse in the state’s isolation units. In 2012, Montana reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the case of a mentally ill juvenile detainee named Raistlen Katka. Katka was placed in solitary confinement for damaging prison property when he was just 17. The lawsuit stated he was “so traumatized by his deplorable treatment in the Montana State Prison that he twice attempted to kill himself by biting through the skin on his wrist to puncture a vein.” Katka later explained to a judge, “My thought process was if I don’t die, at least I’ll get out of my cell for 30 seconds.”
In the Katka settlement, Montana agreed to limit the amount of time young prisoners could spend in solitary confinement to 72 hours without additional approval. The state agreed to improve its treatment of mentally ill inmates in isolation as well.
But the situation had hardly improved one year after Katka. In a letter sent to Montana state officials, the ACLU and Disability Rights Montana (DRM) detailed the findings of a December 2013 investigation into the conditions facing mentally ill inmates in solitary, where they found that medication was routinely withheld from inmates and some were deliberately left undiagnosed by medical staff. They discovered mentally ill prisoners were being locked in isolation for extended periods of time — sometimes for a full 24 hours without exercise. Many of them were still deprived of basic necessities like proper food, clothing, bedding and human contact.
By April 2014, DRM announced it was suing Montana for the “cruel and unusual punishment” of its mentally ill prisoners, arguing their treatment violated the Constitution.
If this year’s HB490 is enacted, Montana state prisons would be required to put safeguards in place to stem this seemingly-uninhibited flow of inmates into its isolation units. Continue reading
Under Mayor de Blasio’s new preliminary budget, 282 correction officers would be brought on to oversee New York City’s juvenile prisoners as funding for staff and alternative programming doubles to $25.3 million in 2016 — the year NYC is scheduled to end solitary confinement for 18-21 year olds.
The mayor’s proposal, which arrives amid a federal lawsuit and several bombshell investigations concerning conditions in the city’s jails, also includes:
- Funding for 6 new staff at the Department of Investigation to investigate “Department of Correction excessive use of force allegations and allegations of criminal conduct.”
- A $1.8 million infusion to troubled private healthcare provider Corizon to provide additional medical and mental health staff for the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for solitary confinement.
- Expanding the hiring task force known as the Applicant Investigation Unit and re-establishing a dedicated recruitment unit in an effort to fight the epidemic corruption and abuse among newly-hired CO’s.
- Provisions for 10 new corrections officers to monitor feeds of the new $15 million security camera network and 6 more CO’s for expanding the canine unit.
- Significant collective bargaining increases for the officers’ unions
It’s important to note that last month, just before the city voted to ban solitary for prisoners 21 and under, and just after several successive months of mounting public pressure to reduce guard-on-inmate violence, the Board of Correction (BOC) amended its proposed rule change to include the condition that the youth solitary ban only take effect if ‘adequate funding for staff and alternative programming’ is available in 2016.
This was also the same vote that authorized the construction and staffing of the controversial $15 million ESHU, which shocked former prisoners, families and advocates when it was announced and led to protests at the BOC hearings and final vote.
The combination of nearly 300 more corrections officers, a boatload of funding and a new solitary unit has turned a well-intentioned effort to end youth prisoner abuse into a deepened commitment to youth incarceration and solitary confinement. This is hardly a fair compromise. As far as I can tell, no comparable effort or funding has been afforded to getting juvenile prisoners out and into programs, treatments and settings that might actually help them.
The New York City Council has yet to respond to the mayor’s budget, but if it were to meet these conditions, the corrections officers and the dues-collecting unions that represent them would arguably stand to gain more from these “reforms” than the city’s chronically victimized prisoners.
Would NYC’s new rules for solitary confinement have saved the life of 19-year-old Andy Henriquez?
Henriquez was brought to Rikers Island when he was only 16. Three years later, he was still awaiting trial when he was placed in isolation. Henriquez had complained of chest pains for seven months before being thrown in ‘the bing,’ but no one at the prison took him seriously.
Health and correction staff ignored Henriquez’ increasingly-dire calls for help, to the point where other inmates on his block began shouting for someone to save him. But no one ever did. Henriquez suffered alone and in extreme pain, given only a prescription for hand cream under the wrong name, until he eventually died from a tear in his aorta.
The question of whether things might have turned out differently for Henriquez stood out in my mind on Tuesday as all 7 members of NYC’s Board of Correction (BOC) voted to adopt changes to the city’s solitary confinement policy.
The amendments featured an end to solitary confinement for all 18 to 21 year old inmates by 2016, “provided that sufficient resources are made available to the Department for necessary staffing and implementation of necessary alternative programming.” Effective immediately, solitary confinement will no longer be used for 16 and 17 year old inmates, those suffering from ‘serious mental illness,’ or those with owed-time.
The amendments also pave the way for the construction of a controversial new isolation area on Rikers Island called the ‘Enhanced Supervision Housing unit,’ or the ESHU, which will cost $14.8 million, introduce 250 new isolation beds to the island and have its own specially-trained, full time staff. Continue reading
This post is being updated throughout the day. Please check back later for more updates.
Update 8:07, 1/14/15:
Here is a copy of the final rules approved by the BOC yesterday.
I’ll have more to say on this in the next day or two when I have time to put together a full post, but I would be very cautious of reports and official statements touting Rikers as a new ‘model for reform’ given its proposed restrictions on solitary for juvenile offenders. Not only because there are so many questions that have yet to be answered concerning alternative programming and its funding, but also because of the ways in which mentally and physically ill inmates have been left exposed to Rikers’ new super solitary unit, aka the ESHU, at the discretion of one of the most untrustworthy prison contractors in the nation.
Update 10:26, 1/13/15:
According to Raven, the protection gap for 18-21 year olds will, in fact, be closed — but there’s a hitch:
That means juvenile prisoners may still be subject to isolation for the remainder of this year at least. Solitary confinement for this age group will end in 2016 provided there is “adequate funding” for alternative programs to take its place (although it’s unclear what exactly those programs would look like).
So I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to see if NYC has enough money to stop torturing young prisoners with isolation. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.
Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.
The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.
Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”
In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading