New York City's Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in America, has been making headlines for the worst possible reasons lately. Between the ritualized beating of teenage inmates and horrendous treatment of mentally ill prisoners, it's no wonder the feds are suing NYC over civil rights violations at the sprawling complex.
So it came as something of a surprise when, on Tuesday morning, New York City officials announced that, starting next year, Rikers Island will no longer hold anyone in solitary confinement under the age of 21, making it the first jail of its kind to do so in the country. Furthermore, no one—regardless of age—will be allowed to suffer in solitary for more than 30 consecutive days, and a separate housing unit will be established for those inmates most prone to violence.
Suffice it to say this is a big deal: Rikers Island just went from being one of the most dysfunctional jails in America to tentatively claiming a spot at the vanguard of the emerging criminal justice reform movement.
"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," New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "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."
Led by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, the Board of Correction voted unanimously 7-0 for these changes to go into effect in January 2016, citing scientific evidence that solitary confinement severely traumitizes adults under the legal drinking age.
"After decades of alarming mismanagement today's vote means meaningful reform is well under way at Rikers," Ponte said on Tuesday.
Ponte was a key appointee of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, until Tuesday morning, had not included lowering the confinement age as a plank in his platform. Instead, the mayor's agenda included $130 million to prevent the mentally ill from entering jail cells—they make up nearly 40 percent of prisoners in New York—as well as an end to punitive segregation for adolescents. De Blasio also created two programs, a Transitional Repair Unit and Second Chance Housing, both of which focus on positive rehabilitation and talking to inmates rather than just throwing them in the slammer.
"For years, New York City has locked people up without the provision of adequate programs and treatment to change their thinking and their behavior," the mayor said in a statement praising the coming changes. "Under Commissioner Ponte's leadership, we have ended the Department's over-reliance on punitive segregation, we've begun to offer enhanced programming and treatment options, and we are pursuing evidence-based practices that will lead to a safer and more humane system."
Throughout the Rikers Island debate this year, the mayor has been criticized for his close relationship with Norman Seabrook, the head of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association. Seabrook has been cast as a stalwart of the status quo, going so far as to block buses of inmates who were headed to testify in court.
But it looks as if Seabrook's efforts mayoral influence is now in doubt. The New York Times reports that the vote "appeared to take him by surprise," and Seabrook has indicated he will sue to prevent the changes. The union leader has been having a rough go of it lately, however: His push to transfer criminal cases against abusive corrections officers from the Bronx to Queens—a more lenient political environment—was recently vetoed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Seabrook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE.)
Still, the integral pressure point here is not City Hall, but rather US Attorney Preet Bharara's office and the Department of Justice, which includes Vanita Gupta, a former ACLU lawyer and criminal justice reformer. The question is whether this solitary confinement change would have happened without the pending federal lawsuit looming over city officials' heads. The model here is Floyd v. City of New York, the 2013 case that essentially branded the practice of stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional. In the years since, stop and frisk has been massively scaled back.
For Rikers Island, this solitary confinement announcement is just a first step. But for the sake of the 13,000 inmates who live on the floating jail between the Bronx and Queens—roughly 500 of them between ages 19 and 21—let's hope it's not the last.
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