The New York City Board of Correction today announced nationally unprecedented new rules governing the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island, including ending its use on people 21 and younger and reducing solitary confinement for all prisoners to no more than 30 consecutive days. The New York Civil Liberties Union was among the organizations pressing the Board for the reforms.
“With these reforms, New York City has taken an important stand for basic human rights and reaffirmed its commitment to the safety of prisoners, prison staff and our communities,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “An institution as profoundly broken as Rikers Island will require wholesale reform to transform into a humane environment that emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation over punishment and isolation, and these rules are a major step forward.”
Under the new rules, which the Board passed unanimously at a hearing today, people 21 and younger will be excluded from solitary confinement and enhanced supervision housing by January 2016. The rule takes into account new scientific evidence that those 21 and younger do not have fully developed cognitive abilities. The NYCLU, with the support of prison officials, mental health professionals and human rights partners, has long advocated against the traumatic impact of solitary confinement especially on vulnerable young people. Last year the NYCLU reached a historic agreement that led New York State to become the largest prison system in the country prohibiting its use on prisoners younger than 18. Today’s new rule, which prohibits solitary confinement for people 21 and younger, is nationally unprecedented.
Furthermore, solitary confinement will immediately be prohibited for more than 30 consecutive days at Rikers Island, after which time prisoners must be allowed to spend at least seven days back in the general prison population before returning to isolation. No person may be subject to more than 60 days of solitary confinement total in a six month period. This is a significant departure from past practices where some prisoners spent months and even years in isolation. Mental health experts and research show the adverse impacts of solitary increase based on the number of days, which is why international human rights organizations advise no more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement.
Today’s rules accompany the creation of enhanced supervision housing, a new housing unit, as an alternative to solitary confinement for prisoners who are considered a serious threat to safety. The new housing unit will hold up to 250 people who may be locked in their cells up to 17 hours a day, including night time hours. The housing unit will begin as a pilot project and require the Department of Correction to present evidence about its effectiveness to the Board before it can be reauthorized. In December, the NYCLU submitted testimony with recommendations for how to ensure the housing unit does not become a backdoor to solitary confinement, including meaningful oversight and accountability.
“The Board of Correction and Department of Correction have expressed a sincere desire for transformation,” Lieberman said. “But ending decades of a culture of abuse requires more than just vision. The hardest part is yet to come. New York City now needs to embrace wholesale reform of Rikers Island, including robust oversight and accountability mechanisms so that the public can ensure that any progress is real and lasting.”