Some NYC Lawmakers, Advocacy Groups Aim to Change City's Use of Solitary Confinement

by Kris Venezia
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Rikers Island

Paul Lowry, flickr 

Petition Calls for New Rules on Punitive Segregation.

Research from a team of experts at the United Nations says solitary confinement is a harsh measure that should only be used as a last resort, but the New York City Jails Action Coalition says while fewer people are in jail, more inmates are finding themselves in solitary confinement.

The audio version of the story is attached at the bottom of the article. 

Five Mualimm-ak spent 49,300 hours in solitary confinement. He was arrested on a few charges including drug trafficking and possession of an illegal weapon. He says the criminal system uses the practice to break inmates down, and it works.

"You can feel yourself changing," said Mualimm-ak. "You end up talking to yourself or talking out loud, I still have that problem.

"I've only been home a year, but I still counsel myself because your own voice is the only thing that you hear [in isolation]."

Norman Seabrook, President of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, says there’s this misconception with the so-called box that inmates are treated like dirt.

"They still receive their visits, they still make their legal phone calls, they still receive their food three times a day, they still have recreation one hour a day, they still have communication with other inmates in the cell next to them - in front of them - behind them, [and] they're still able to yell across the corridor to the next inmate," Seabrook said.

"The only thing they are not allowed to do is come out of their cell and continue to assault people like the same people they assaulted to get there."

Some say solitary confinement can have serious consequences to mental health.

Dr. Keith Cruise is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Fordham University. His research includes the study of mental health in the criminal justice system. He says the use of solitary confinement can be very damaging.

"It's a bleak place," said Cruise. "Spending 23 hours a day in that same environment is one of the chief concerns about the exacerbation of the mental health difficulties."

He says there’s probably more that could be done to help those who suffer in isolation.

"The data suggests in terms of recidivism rates, when people come out of facilities, and the number of victimizations that happen, give us good indications that the level of services can be improved across the board." 

The New York City Jails Action Coalition has put together a lengthy petition that proposes new rules for solitary confinement. These policies would include giving those in the box four hours of recreation time instead of one, and limiting the time someone can spend in isolation. 

The New York City Board of Corrections will vote on the petition Monday. Sarah Kerr is a member of the Jails Action Coalition and co-wrote the petition. She says Monday’s vote is one small step on the path to change.

"They're voting really on whether it is important enough of an issue for [the Board of Correction] to start the process of rulemaking and considering changes to the minimum standards," said Kerr.

Kerr says if the Board of Correction takes up the petition, there’s still much more deliberation before any real change is made.

The petition has the support of ten city councilmembers, including Councilman Daniel Dromm.

Besides supporting the petition, he’s also introduced two bills into the city council. One of them would require a monthly report on solitary confinement from the city Department of Correction.

His second bill would not allow an individual returning to jail to complete time owed in the box. For example, if a person was released early on good behavior, but broke the law and found themselves going back to prison, the inmate would not have to serve time in solitary confinement from an earlier sentence.

It’s only a resolution, and the council does not have the authority to enforce the legislation on the DOC.

Dromm says he’s heavily involved in this issue because it involves the public’s safety.

"When we take people who have been in solitary confinement for extended periods of time, often time substance abusers, often time mentally ill people, and then release them out to the street, without really any intervention or treatment, that is a danger to society," said Dromm.

Norman Seabrook agrees that without proper medical attention, those released from incarceration can be a threat to the community.

He says correction officers are not trained doctors, and with reports from the Department of Correction that roughly one-third of inmates suffer from a mental illness, officers can have a difficult time handling some inmates.

"When a person is arrested or incarcerated, we... become the mother, the father, the brother, the sister, the doctor, the lawyer, the advisor to this inmate... several of them dealing with several different personalities," said Seabrook. "We try to deal with it as best we can."

The city Department of Correction is taking some steps to address these issues. They say starting in July, they’ll transfer mentally ill inmates to separate treatment facilities with trained doctors. They say these inmates will not be released back to a regular jail setting until they complete therapy.

Today, Five Mualimm-ak works as an advocate against solitary confinement. He says he struggles with mental health conditions after his time in the box, including bi-polar disorder. He argues putting someone in isolation doesn’t solve anything.  

"When you just start housing people in time-out and just figuring they're going to work out their problems on their own, that becomes torturous because you're not making an effort to fix the conditions," said Mualimm-ak.

According to the Jails Action Coalition, the use of solitary confinement in New York City has risen by 44% in the past year. 

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Audio of Story

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