New York City’s Board of Correction, which oversees conditions in the city’s jails, voted on Tuesday to approve a request from the Department of Correction (DOC) to delay the elimination of solitary confinement for young adult detainees until the end of February, 2016.
The variance was approved on the condition [PDF] that “by January 4, 2016, the Department will provide BOC with a plan containing details on the new disciplinary system and alternatives for young adults, including housing alternatives to punitive segregation and enhanced supervision.”
The vote comes on the heels of a high-profile incident at the detention complex last week in which a Rikers guard was allegedly ambushed by young inmates in a slashing incident. The attack led to demonstrations by law enforcement groups including the Corrections Officer Benevolent Association (COBA), which objects to many of the reforms taking place on Rikers including the curtailment of the use of solitary confinement. The groups called for DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to resign.
The elimination of solitary confinement for young adults was supposed to take place on January 1, 2016, and is included in the Young Adult Plan compiled by the DOC and recently submitted to the board. The plan outlines the steps the DOC will undertake to comply with the board’s recently-adopted rules and regulations.
In a variance request to the board dated October 28, Commissioner Ponte wrote, “The success of this [Young Adult Plan] is dependent on the Department’s ability to lay a solid foundation to build upon prior to moving forward. Completion of the requisite components of the plan and the elimination of punitive segregation for this population cannot be achieved by January 1, 2016, so the Department is unable to fully comply with the minimum standards by that date.”
“The elimination of punitive segregation is a key component of the [DOC’s Young Adult Plan] and requires careful consideration and incorporation of effective alternatives that address disciplinary issues while maintaining the safety and security of inmates and staff,” Ponte wrote. “In place of punitive segregation, inmates who commit minor infractions will be subject to a loss of privileges. Those who commit serious infractions will be disciplined through a tier response protocol structure, similar to that which is utilized for adolescents [under the age of 18] in DOC custody.”
The DOC originally submitted the variance request on September 25, but a vote was moved until the board’s November 10 meeting.
On November 10, the DOC submitted a six-month variance request [PDF], asking for permission to, “in highly exceptional circumstances presenting safety and security concerns, waive the requirement that inmates be immediately released from punitive segregation for seven (7) days after they have been held in punitive segregation for thirty (30) consecutive days.”
The DOC claimed it would need to request renewals of this variance for up to two years “to allow the time needed to establish appropriate secure housing alternatives for the population.”
While most inmates released from punitive segregation have been returned to general population housing and remain there without incident, there is a small number of inmates who have been involved in violent incidents, which have endangered the safety of inmates and staff, immediately following their release from punitive segregation. This experience has demonstrated that if an inmate commits a violent act within the seven (7) days that they are released or while confined in punitive segregation, it is critical that the Department have reasonable flexibility to remove that individual from a general population setting or keep the inmate in punitive segregation — to do otherwise jeopardizes everyone’s safety.
The department also wrote that the new super-solitary unit, the Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) unit, would not be appropriate for these situations because “ESH is a rehabilitative unit geared towards addressing the root causes of violence and minimizing idleness. ESH is not intended as a reactionary unit for the short-term placement of an inmate who has recently engaged in violent behavior, and it is deliberately not a substitute for punitive segregation. “
The DOC said it would implement “alternative mental health protections” when it waives the 7-day break rule, such as having mental health staff conduct rounds to all punitive segregation inmates who are being retained in solitary. The Chief of Department would approve all waivers in writing and state the reason why an inmate would be retained in solitary confinement beyond the limitations outlined in the board’s rules. If approved, the variance would begin on December 8.
The board approved a continuing variance request at the same meeting from the Health & Hospitals Corporation, which will take over medical services at the jail when the Corizon Health Services contract runs out at the end of the year. That request exempts them from recently adopted rules stating “no later than October 15, 2015 … inmates ages 18 through 21 be housed separately and apart from inmates over the age of 21” in specialized mental health units. HHS argued that there are too few inmates in these programs to dedicate staff and resources to the age groups individually as the board requires.
Additionally, the board approved a set of continuing variances have been in place for years, allowing the department to: house “high classification city-sentenced adolescents” at the Robert N. Davoren Complex due to limited bedspace at the Eric M. Taylor Center; separate pregnant inmates from the rest of the population to protect them from infection and disease; use suicide smocks and suicide resistant bedding for inmates on suicide watch; and provide “meaningful indoor recreation activities” to inmates who are unable to go outside for medical reasons.
The board did not have a comment on extending the deadline to end solitary confinement for young adult inmates, but we will update the post if or when they respond.