On Rikers Island, an End to the Solitary Confinement of Children

On Rikers Island, an End to the Solitary Confinement of Children

A solitary confinement cell on New York's Rikers Island.

The New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has plans to minimize the solitary confinement of 16 and 17 year olds on Rikers Island. This according to an internal memo obtained by the New York Times, as reported in an article published earlier this week.

The revelation comes on the heels of a three-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the findings of which were released in an August report by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. The report sharply criticized the DOC for its use of solitary confinement on the children in its custody. Among other abuses, the DOJ found that “there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.”

The report concludes that “DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.”  The report also lays out numerous remedial measures, recommending that DOC “develop and implement an adequate continuum of alternative disciplinary sanctions for rule violations that do not involve lengthy isolation” of adolescents, and “prohibit placing adolescents with mental health disorders in solitary confinement for punitive purposes.”

On Sunday, the Times reported that DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte had responded openly to DOJ’s scathing critique. Ponte reportedly told members of the New York City Board of Corrections, the oversight body for Rikers and other city jails, that “jail operations needed to be changed to better deal with adolescents.” The Times shared the contents of Ponte’s memo to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in which Ponte alludes to policy changes that could bring an end to the longstanding practice of confining 16 and 17 year olds in cells for up to 23 hours a day. The DOC puts the number of 16 and 17 year-olds currently being held in isolation at 51.

Although the September 25 memo is “short on specifics,” the Times reported, it “says that solitary confinement will be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring’ ” when it comes to children on Rikers. According to the Times, the internal memo referred to “the first round of changes” Ponte will make to “meet our shared commitment to a safe, just and age-appropriate correctional setting.”

New York is one of only two states in which 16 and 17 year olds accused of a felony are automatically tried as adults and placed in adult jails while awaiting trial or serving their sentences. Earlier this year, under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) which, reached an agreement that it would limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles under the age of 18 in state prisons. Research has shown that without such restrictions, juveniles placed in adult prisons and jails are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary confinement.

Johnny Perez, who spent sixty days in solitary confinement on Rikers at the age of 16, sees the development as positive, but emphasizes that further change in needed. Perez works as a Safe Reentry Advocate at the Urban Justice Center and is active in the NYC Jails Action Coalition, the grassroots group that has spearheaded the fight for change to solitary confinement practices on Rikers. In an email to Solitary Watch about the Times article, Perez wrote, “Although Ponte’s decision is a step in the right direction, there is still much work to do. As we know the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, so ideally we would like to see all people 25 and under excluded from Solitary confinement.”

This is a familiar caution, often echoed by advocates and raised during a hearing last July on the solitary confinement of juveniles before by the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Dr. Bandy Lee, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and author of a report  issued to the DOC condemning solitary confinement, testified that exclusions from solitary confinement should extend to those older than 18, as the brain is not yet fully formed until the age of 25.

Further progress could be made through the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, introduced in the New York State Legislature earlier this year. HALT would ban all use of isolation on 21 and younger, in both state prisons and local jails. The bill, however, faces a steep uphill battle in both houses of the legislature.


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