The New York Civil Liberties Union will testify today in front of the New York City Board of Correction, urging its members to reject rule changes proposed by the city’s Department of Correction that create obstacles to rehabilitation by restricting visitations between people who are incarcerated and their family members, and rolling back groundbreaking reforms that limited solitary confinement sentences to 30 days.
“We share the department’s desire to make Rikers safer for both prisoners and guards, but targeting hugs and kisses from family and increasing solitary will only do more damage,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Ending violence at Rikers will require the hard but necessary work of bringing the prison population down to manageable levels where there can be enough supervision and ensuring that prison staff are trained, held to the highest professional standards and accountable for violating rights.”
The Department of Correction, which operates Rikers Island, is proposing limiting visits between people who are incarcerated and their families, which are critical for prisoners’ mental health and rehabilitation and allow them to maintain the supportive networks they must rely on to successfully get back on their feet after they are released from prison. The department is attempting to limit human physical contact at the jail to a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and end of the visit in an effort to reduce the amount of contraband smuggled into the jail, and is furthermore asking for the authority to limit or revoke a friend or family member’s right to visit based on a variety of vaguely defined factors, including the visitor’s past criminal convictions, probation or parole status, or lack of a familial or intimate relationship with the prisoner.
In its testimony, the NYCLU notes that although the department is attempting to restrict visitation in order to curb the number of weapons at Rikers, 79 percent of the weapons found at Rikers were created inside the jail with materials found at the jail. The blanket limit on hugs and human touch for every single person at Rikers is particularly unfair because the majority of people who will be hurt by this have not yet been convicted of any crime, and are at Rikers awaiting trial because they are too poor to afford bail. The NYCLU contends that other measures, like increasing the number of well-trained officers present during visits and adding more surveillance cameras in visiting rooms would cut down on contraband without fraying the personal connections which, the department acknowledges, are critical for prisoners to re-enter society.
“A hug or a kiss or a visit from friends or family is a lifeline for people who are incarcerated at Rikers,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Phil Desgranges. “Violence at Rikers is a serious problem, but solving the problem requires increasing supervision and keeping the prison population at manageable levels, not restricting the few interactions prisoners have with the family members they need to rely on for support when they are released.”
The department is also asking the board to roll back widely-praised restrictions on the use of solitary confinement that the NYCLU successfully fought for in January of this year. Those restrictions represented nationally unprecedented progress toward minimizing the use of solitary confinement by reducing sentences to no more than 30 consecutive days.
Unfortunately, the department is seeking to take a step backward by carving out several exceptions to this cap, including increasing the maximum solitary sentence to 60 consecutive days for serious assaults on staff and allowing multiple back-to-back solitary sentences for prisoners who commit infractions in between confinements, which could potentially keep someone in solitary confinement for months and months at a time without respite.
In its testimony, the NYCLU points out that the department is attempting to increase the use of this torturous punishment without any evidence that doing so will decrease violence at Rikers – indeed, slashing and stabbing incidents were tragically common at Rikers during periods where long bouts in solitary were the norm. The NYCLU argues that increasing solitary confinement sentences beyond 30 days is not an acceptable option for managing violence, and the department should therefore explore less restrictive options, like enhanced restraints, for keeping the general prison population safe rather than inviting the trauma that extended stays in solitary are bound to have on people. In fact, international human rights organizations advise no more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement.
“It is neither safe, humane nor responsible to impose solitary confinement in its current form at Rikers for longer than 30 days on any person,” said Lieberman. “The department needs to find alternatives to solitary instead of turning back the clock by relying on a punishment widely recognized as torture.”