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Podcast: Rikers Island Reforms Solitary Confinement with Pre-Crime and New Isolation Units

There has been a push by activists, advocacy organizations, and concerned citizens in New York to reform solitary confinement. Yet, at Rikers Island prison, the city recently adopted a “rehabilitative” reform, which developed a new system of solitary confinement for inmates in order to accomplish solitary confinement reforms.

Independent journalist Raven Rakia appears on this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” episode to share her reporting on Rikers Island in New York, which was published by The Nation.

New York has reformed solitary confinement by establishing Enhanced Supervision Housing Units (ESHUs). The units are essentially enhanced solitary confinement units, and Rakia highlights how this system may further entrench the abuses of solitary confinement into the system at Rikers. The Department of Corrections (DOC) has also incorporated “predictive analysis” or pre-crime analysis into designating which inmates should be put in ESHUs because they possess “traits” that may lead them to commit violence.

During the discussion, the hosts, Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola, discuss the University of Missouri and how what happened there has inspired protests on campuses across the United States. They talk about some of the tactics by students, such as requests for apologies for -isms from university presidents and prohibiting media access to public assemblies. How do these tactics ultimately help students win power? Finally, Khalek comments on the Center for American Progress’ event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Below is a partial edited transcript of the interview with Raven Rakia.

GOSZTOLA: I want to let you set this up. What are Enhanced Supervision Housing Units? These are being used in New York City [at Rikers], as there is this pressure to reform solitary confinement?

RAKIA: The Enhanced Supervision Housing Units opened in February. There’s currently two open units with 50 people in each, but they have about 5 total. Three of them don’t have any people held in them right now. But they’re basically a unit that was proposed by Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte. It was one of his first proposals when he became commissioner last year, and they were promoted as something that would be fore the most violent people in jail; so something that would be for the most violent people in jail.

They would have enhanced supervision by a higher guard-to-inmate ratio. It’s covered with cameras everywhere, like in the showers. There’s a lot of surveillance in these units, and they have seven hours of out-of-cell time a day so they’re locked in their cells seventeen hours a day.

KHALEK: They were trying to bill it as a solution to solitary confinement, but it’s worse is the conclusion from the people who have been in [the units].

RAKIA: Yes. It was proposed first in July, but then seriously it was voted on and proposed in November again. And it was after the Board of Corrections had been looking at solitary confinement and looking to reform it for a over year. So they were in this long process of trying to decide how much they could curb solitary and what limitations they should put on it. Then, Commissioner Ponte was appointed in April and this was his first proposal.

He promoted as a reform that was supposed to be in the solitary confinement package, but in reality it’s an extension of isolation and people who are held there really hate it and they describe it as a very abusive unit.

GOSZTOLA: Talk more about how these solitary units were proposed to deal with the violence on Rikers.

RAKIA: It was sort of proposed to the Board who had to vote on it and to the public. To the public, it was promoted as something that would reduce violence on Rikers by removing the most violent people from the rest of the population and putting them in a unit that had more supervision and more of a focus on them. Then, to the Board, it was sort of presented as this is what we need in order to implement solitary confinement reforms. In order to limit solitary confinement to what you want, which is 30 days, and get rid of old time for solitary confinement, we need to make this unit to remove the most violent people or if we don’t do this then solitary confinement will not be possible without violence increasing tenfold at Rikers jail.

GOSZTOLA: When I read about these reforms, I am reminded of Pelican Bay in California, where prisoners are pressured to inform on people and make claims that individuals are a part of gangs if they want to get out of solitary confinement. Do you know if Rikers has always had a system heavily incentivizing prisoners to inform against other prisoners to get out of solitary?

RAKIA: It was a little bit more informal. Of course, people are encouraged to inform on others. They definitely use jailhouse informants in Rikers to determine who they decide is in a gang or not, but it wasn’t something that would necessarily get you out of solitary confinement. In New York, before the reforms, the limit on solitary confinement was sixty days so people could be sent to up to sixty days and then technically the rule is they would have to be placed in another unit.

With these enhanced supervision units, people can be placed there for anything they’ve done in the past five years. Solitary was like you did something that was against the rules and you were sent into a solitary for a number of days and then you were out. So, it was for a specific thing that you did. For enhanced supervision, it’s much more broad and an indefinite placement. It can definitely be used as a tool by guards if they want some [inaudible] or to tell on someone else. It definitely can be more easily used as that sort of intimidation with the enhanced supervision unit.

KHALEK: While were on this subject, what I really find interesting is—Like you just mentioned, with solitary it usually is someone does something wrong. They’ll get put in solitary for whatever they’ve done. In this case, this is such creepy terminology but they use predictive analysis to determine which inmates have a propensity of violence and are therefore eligible for the unit. What does that mean?

RAKIA: That’s a great question. People have basically been asking the same thing. It is basically trying to predict violence so they promote it as saying these people are violent people and, therefore, they are trying to find the violent people. It is like a character trait instead of an action or reaction to something. And that’s one of the problems with ESHUs that people are talking about. They are punishing people for things that they have not necessarily done yet. They are punishing them for their prediction that this person is just violent inherently or something like that. That’s one of the main problems with the unit is people are just basically being punished not for what they’ve done but for what they could do, according to the Department of Corrections’ analysis.

KHALEK: So it’s pre-crime.

RAKIA: Yeah, it’s predictive policing or risk assessment. It’s very similar to these things that are becoming more and more popular in the criminal justice system.

KHALEK: It’s a really disturbing trend, and Mayor Bill de Blasio is a really big fan of this. I noticed there was a couple criminal justice advocacy organizations, who seem to support this in some way or form, which is something I find really shocking.

RAKIA: Not necessarily. For the advocacy, nonprofit organizations came out against it when it was being proposed. Depending on how radical they go, some people were saying if you do this unit you need to make this less bad unit.

But, yes, Mayor de Blasio came out in support, and [de Blasio] and Commissioner Ponte are a team. He’s basically bragged about it since it’s been open.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."