July 12, 2016

My name is Ruthie Epstein – I am the Deputy Advocacy Director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU is a membership organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all New Yorkers, including those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

We applaud the ongoing efforts of the Department of Correction to reform solitary practices in New York City, which have led to a significant reduction in the number of people held in solitary on Rikers, according to DOC data. However, we are concerned that the Department is now making its fourth request to delay the end of solitary for young adults. We recognize the very real management challenges that this change presents for the Department, as detailed in the Commissioner’s June 30 variance request, but the City first agreed to the plan in January 2015. They have had a year and a half to prepare. Therefore, we join other advocates today in urging the Board of Correction to deny the Department of Correction’s variance request. By its own admission, the DOC today holds only 9 young adults in solitary. Surely the Department can find a different solution for these individuals that supports their rehabilitation and their basic human rights, rather than subjecting them to a practice widely condemned as torture.

We all know the well-established devastating effects that solitary confinement can have on young people. Indeed, that is the very reason the DOC has proposed to remove them from solitary confinement – for which they deserve credit. Every day that a young person spends in solitary confinement is a day where they are subject to brutal conditions that pose a risk to their mental health and their psychic well-being, and may damage them irreversibly - with severe consequences for them, their families, the staff at Rikers, and ultimately our communities when they return home. There is, in short, no question that we must get young people out of solitary confinement as quickly as possible.

At the same time, we know that solitary confinement is deeply engrained at Rikers, as it is throughout all our jail and prison systems, and that a long-term plan to end solitary confinement for young people must be carefully and thoughtfully implemented. The question before the Board today is how to strike an appropriate balance between ending the daily damage being done to young people detained at Rikers and held in solitary, and ensuring the transition away from solitary confinement is accomplished safely and permanently.

We believe that balance is appropriately struck by denying the DOC's variance request. It is unclear that the DOC can definitively point to the removal of young adults from solitary as the cause of the increase in violence last month, nor is it clear what safeguards the DOC put into place in anticipation of June’s population increase at GMDC. We strongly caution against any conclusion that solitary confinement is the only way to prevent violence among young adults on Rikers. In fact, the Department’s June 30 letter makes the case that reducing solitary does not, on its own, lead to an increase in violence: “Reforms have resulted in an 80 percent reduction in the number of inmates in punitive segregation and the imposition of length of stay limits… [D]uring this period of dramatic reform we also successfully decreased violence.”

Bold reform objectives, and steady progress toward those objectives, are absolutely critical to permanently transforming the culture at Rikers and eventually, we believe, paving the way toward closing the jails on the island. The NYCLU respectfully urges the Board to deny the DOC’s current variance request.

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