New York City to reform policies on solitary confinement for prisoners

Rikers Island Prison as seen from an airplane. (Photo credit: Tim Rodenberg via Flickr)

New York City officials announced a plan this week that would amount to long sought-after changes in Rikers Island, one of the largest prisons in the United States. Linda Perry Barr has more from New York City.

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Policy changes announced Tuesday and set to take effect next year will end solitary confinement for New York City prisoners  aged 21-years-old and younger. No inmate will be held in solitary for more than 30 consecutive days with no more than two 30-day stints allowed in any six-month period.

Taylor Pendergrass is a senior staff  attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, an organization that has been pushing for reform. He says the changes “recognize overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement is extremely harmful as well as degrading.”

The current limit for stints in solitary confinement in Rikers is 90 consecutive days. Inmates in segregation are locked in their cells 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation which is often at 4 a.m. The majority of the inmates at Rikers are young people of color awaiting trial, and thus presumed innocent.

“That’s a really important point to make,” notes Danny Dromm, a New York City Council member from Queens who advocates for prison reform. He says most inmates at Rikers Island “are people who cannot afford bail and oftentimes that bail is as low as $250 and they have not been convicted of a crime as of yet.”

Around 40 percent of the inmates at Rikers have been diagnosed as having some form of mental illness, conditions which solitary confinement can compound. Council member Dromm says he is glad to see New York City’s new corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte making changes to controversial practices at the prison.

“I want to sit back and see what the results are from these changes and we’ll take it from that,” Dromm told FSRN. “I’ve passed legislation at the council which will require them to report on the number of people in solitary, why they’re placed in solitary, how much recreation time they get in solitary.”

Dromm says the report is due on January 20th and that will begin to give the New York City Council an initial look at progress made by the new administration in the dept. of corrections.

New York Civil Liberties Union lead attorney Taylor Pendergrass says the implications of implementing these changes at Rikers go beyond New York city limits.

“What’s important about what is happening at Rikers is not only the changes themselves but that these changes are happening at one of the biggest urban jails in the United States. And one of the hurdles in accomplishing reform, and ultimately the abolition of solitary confinement in other places in the US, has been the belief that these reforms are too difficult to accomplish, can’t be done in big prison systems and I think Rikers really blows that argument.

The policy reforms are due to take effect in January of 2016.

Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of council member Danny Dromm. The error has been corrected in the current version.

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