Tortured Logic: Board of Correction Delays Vote to End Solitary in NYC Jails

Amid empty promises, it is unclear when or if the City will ban a practice human rights advocates decry as torture.

Amba Guerguerian Oct 17, 2020

On Tuesday, New York City’s Board of Correction, the oversight agency of the Department of Correction, announced that it would push back a vote on a rule to end solitary confinement, stating that BOC members were still awaiting a proposal from Mayor de Blasio’s working group. Making no promises, the BOC said it might have a special meeting later in the month to hold a vote or that they might vote on the measure during their November meeting. 

When activists and advocates pushed for an end to solitary after Layleen Polanco’s death in June of 2019, Mayor de Blasio told Brian Lehrer, “I’m not there yet.” In June, the Mayor vowed to end solitary confinement in New York City jails, citing Polanco’s death as a catalyst for the decision. 

De Blasio also announced the formation of a working group to eliminate solitary confinement in the New York City jail system. The working group’s recommendations on how to invoke a rule to end solitary would be voted on by the Board of Correction in the fall. 

Two of the four members of the working group, Benny Boscio and Cynthia Brann, seem like counterintuitive choices. Benny Boscio is the President of the Correctional Officer’s Benevolent Association, a group that staunchly supports the use of solitary confinement. “I am not in an agreement with it at all. We can’t end it,” Boscio said on August 1st. 

Cynthia Brann is the Commissioner of the Department of Correction. The DOC has claimed that locking people in an isolated cell for 21 hours a day does not qualify as solitary confinement. 

Advocates from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, commonly known as the #HALTSolitary Campaign, have been pushing the City to end all forms of solitary confinement (punitive segregation, restrictive housing) since 2012. They released a response to the Mayor’s June announcement arguing that a working group was not necessary: 

While we welcome Mayor de Blasio acknowledging the need to end solitary confinement in New York City jails, the time for working groups and discussions has long passed. Decades of research show that solitary is ineffective, dangerous, and, too often, deadly. The Mayor has the power to eliminate this torture immediately and the community provided him with a detailed plan for doing so last October. 

In October 2019, #HALTSolitary released a blueprint, proposed rules for ending solitary to the Board of Correction. At the end of that month, the BOC pushed forward their own reform to end the practice, which fell short of advocates’ demands. Neither have been brought to a vote. 

If the advocates’ blueprint were enacted, solitary confinement in New York City jails would be banned. 

In December, the BOC held a public hearing on the topic, during which survivors of solitary, their family members and public officials all pushed for the blueprint. Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee Keith Powers and other individual councilmembers all stood in support of the blueprint. Speaker Johnson could call a City Council vote on the blueprint, but he hasn’t. The measure would need 26 of 51 votes to pass City Council and 34 votes to withstand a mayoral veto.

The Indypendent reached out to Johnson for comment, but he has not responded.

Melania Brown, Layleen Polanco’s sister, was dismayed when she learned that the BOC had decided to postpone its vote. 

“I couldn’t hold the tears as I sat there listening to the testimonies of some survivors,” she wrote on Instagram. “All that kept running through my head was ‘Did they torture you, Layleen, before they stood nearby watching you take your last breath as they laughed?” Where were they bringing you from before they threw you in that box (solitary confinement)?’ The video footage that was publicly released still haunts me, seeing how sad my baby sister looked before walking into her death (solitary confinement) over the objections of medical staff crushes my soul to the core.”

In June of 2019, Layleen Polanco died from an epileptic seizure in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. A report released by the BOC found that Polanco was the victim of multiple instances of neglect by Rikers’ jail staff. Medical staff  on hand suggested that Polanco be kept out of solitary due to her health problems. The 27-year-old Afro-Latina trans woman was in the city jail because she couldn’t afford to pay a $500 bail. 

Polanco was a member of the legendary House of Extravaganza, one of the best-known, longest-running houses of the ballroom scene. She was detained at Rikers as a result of a previous 2017 charge for sex work. “My sister was full of life. Layleen had so much more life to give,” Melania Brown told The Indypendent. 

Supporters of solitary confinement say that it decreases violence in jails and prisons. However, studies suggest that its victims struggle with high recidivism rates and onsets of psychosis and are more likely to act violently following their release from jail.

Under de Blasio, the City’s average daily number of inmates has dropped from 10,400 to 4,700 since 2014, according to the New York Times. However, the total number of inmates held in solitary each year has remained about the same since 2017. Corrections officials insist this is because the remaining inmates tend to be more violent while advocates argue that the root cause is the increasingly violent culture of prison guarding. 

The fight against solitary exists on the state level, too, where 57 percent of inmates sent to solitary are Black even though only 18 percent of the State’s population is Black, according to a 2019 report

In 2014, the #HALTSolitary Campaign proposed a bill to the State that restricts solitary confinement to no longer than 15 consecutive days, creates more humane and effective alternatives and restricts jail staff from ever confining certain at-risk populations. The proposed limit is in line with the United Nations’ Mandela Rules, which state that holding a person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture.

The bill has a majority of co-sponsors in both the State Senate and Assembly but the measure has not been brought up for a vote by legislative leaders at the insistence of Cuomo. The Governor has claimed that the measure would increase costs to the State. The #HALTSolitary Campaign has provided evidence that suggests otherwise. 

According to a September 22nd Senate hearing held by the Committee on Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections and the Committee on Health to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on New York’s prisons and jails, the State has expanded the use of solitary during the outbreak of the virus, sending inmates to solitary as a method of quarantine or for reasons like trying or refusing to wear a mask or asking a corrections officer to wear a mask.  

For more information, see the Jails Action Coalition and the Anti-Violence Project. You can listen to our radio interview with Melania Brown here

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