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New York City Council votes to ban most instances of solitary confinement

People gather for a rally to protest conditions at New York City's Rikers Island jail in October of 2022. The New York City Council voted Wednesday to ban most uses of solitary confinement in the city's jails.
Michael M. Santiago
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People gather for a rally to protest conditions at New York City's Rikers Island jail in October of 2022. The New York City Council voted Wednesday to ban most uses of solitary confinement in the city's jails.

The New York City Council voted to ban most uses of solitary confinement in city jails Wednesday, passing the measure with enough votes to override a veto from Mayor Eric Adams.

The measure would ban the use of solitary confinement beyond four hours and during certain emergencies. That four hour period would be for "de-escalation" in situations where a detainee has caused someone else physical harm or risks doing so. The resolution would also require the city's jails to allow every person detained to spend at least 14 hours outside of their cells each day.

The bill, which had 38 co-sponsors, was passed 39 to 7. It will now go to the mayor, who can sign the bill or veto it within 30 days. If Mayor Adams vetoes the bill, it will get sent back to the council, which can override the veto with a vote from two-thirds of the members. The 39 votes for the bill today make up 76% of the 51-member council. At a press conference ahead of the vote today, Council speaker Adrienne Adams indicated the council would seek an override if necessary.

For his part, Mayor Adams has signaled he is indeed considering vetoing the bill.

The mayor's deputy press secretary, Kayla Mamelak, said in an emailed statement to NPR that the Council's bill "would foster an environment of fear and instability."

"It would make it harder to protect people in custody, and the predominantly Black and brown workers charged with their safety, from violent individuals," she said.

However, Mamelak also said the Adams administration "does not support solitary confinement" in the city's jails and maintains that New York City has not used the practice for years – a claim advocates of the bill disputed today in a press conference.

The United Nations has said solitary confinement can amount to torture, and multiple studies suggest its use can have serious consequences on a person's physical and mental health, including an increased risk of PTSD, dying by suicide, and having high blood pressure.

One 2019 study found people who had spent time in solitary confinement in prison were more likely to die in the first year after their release than people who had not spent time in solitary confinement. They were especially likely to die from suicide, homicide and opioid overdose.

Black and Hispanic men have been found to be overrepresented among those placed in solitary confinement – as have gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

The resolution in New York comes amid scrutiny over deaths in the jail complex on Rikers Island. Last month, the federal government joined efforts to wrest control of the facility from the mayor, and give it to an outside authority.

In August 2021, 25-year-old Brandon Rodriguez died while in solitary confinement at Rikers. He had been in pre-trial detention at the jail for less than a week. His mother, Tamara Carter, says his death was ruled a suicide and that he was in a mental health crisis at the time of his confinement.

"I know for Brandon, he should have been put in the infirmary. He should have been seeing a psychiatrist. He should have been being watched," she said.

She says the passage of the bill feels like a form of justice for her.

"Brandon wasn't nothing. He was my son. He was an uncle. A brother. A grandson. And he's very, very missed," she told NPR. "I couldn't save my son. But if I joined this fight, maybe I could save somebody else's son."

The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, a union which represents correctional staff in New York City, strongly opposed the bill, saying it would further put employees in danger.

The association's president, Benny Boscio, said at a city council hearing last year that the bill "would only lead to more carnage in our jails."

At the hearing, Boscio said the council has falsely labeled what he referred to as "punitive segregation" as solitary confinement.

"Punitive segregation is simply a jail within a jail that exists solely for violent offenders who attack our officers and nonviolent inmates. The cells in punitive segregation are the same cells that other inmates are in," Boscio said at the hearing.

The association did not immediately respond to an NPR request for comment.

A 2020 report from the city's Department of Correction reported an increase in serious injuries to staff, as well as violence among people in custody.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, whose position means he is a non-voting member of the council who can introduce and co-sponsor legislation, says he acknowledges the violence correctional officers experience.

"That's happening right now, while they're using isolation and solitary, which means that it is not working," Williams said at today's city council meeting. "If we want something different, we have to actually try something different."

New York City is not the first U.S. city to limit the use of solitary confinement in its jails, though it is the largest. In 2021, voters in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, passed a measure to restrict solitary confinement except in cases of lockdowns and emergencies. The sheriff in Illinois' Cook County, which includes Chicago, has said the Cook County jail – one of the country's largest – has also stopped using solitary confinement.

In 2022, Connecticut passed a bill that restricted the amount of time someone could spend in isolation to 15 consecutive days. California voters attempted to pass a similar bill last year, though it was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. At the federal level this last July, House Democrats introduced a bill to end solitary confinement in federal prison and detention facilities and incentivize states to end the practice as well.

Naila Awan, the interim co-director of policy at the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that New York making this change could have larger influence across the country.

"As folks look at what New York has done, other larger jails that are not quite the size of Rikers will be able to say, 'If New York City is able to do this, then we too can implement similar programs here, that it's within our capacity and capabilities," Awan says. "And to the extent that we are able to get this implemented and folks see the success, I think we could see a real shift in the way that individuals are treated behind bars."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Meg Anderson
Meg Anderson is a reporter on NPR's National Desk covering criminal justice. Before that, she was a reporter and producer on NPR's Investigations team, where she reported on delays in medical care within the federal Bureau of Prisons, the failures of the Department of Justice to release at-risk prisoners to safer settings during the pandemic, and the award-winning series Heat and Health in American Cities, which illustrated how low-income neighborhoods nationwide are often hotter in temperature than their wealthier counterparts. Additionally, she served as a producer for the team, including on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She has also reported for NPR's politics and education desks, and for WAMU, the local Member station in Washington, D.C. She is based in the Midwest.