New and Less Regulated Use of Punitive Segregation Exposed at Rikers
MONDAY, OCTOBER 03, 2016

The Department of Corrections has not only continued to use solitary confinement at Rikers Island but has also been using new and less regulated punitive segregation, it was revealed, confirming the concerns of reform advocates like the Prisoners’ Rights Project.

According to POLITICO New York, the Board that oversees the Department of Corrections has notified the department that that it is in violation of the board’s minimum standards for the treatment of inmates held in Rikers Island's West Facility.

“We are glad that the Board has called the Department to task on their public claims to be moving away from solitary confinement, while behind the scenes they are creating new, and even less regulated, solitary confinement units to hold vulnerable people,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, head of The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, in a statement.




Politico
Letter cites continued use of solitary confinement at Rikers
By Colby Hamilton
10/03/16

Late last week, the board that oversees the city’s Department of Correction notified the department that it was in violation of the board’s minimum standards for the treatment of inmates held in Rikers Island's West Facility.

Made up of a series of tent-like structures referred to as “sprungs,” West was initially intended to be used as a contagious disease unit where sick inmates could be isolated away from other inmates. More recently it has been used as a secure facility to keep select inmates away from the general population. Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn spent the night in the West Facility after his 2011 arrest for allegedly raping a hotel maid.

However, according to the board, the department appears to be using the West facility as a de facto punitive segregation facility for some of the most violent and challenging inmates at Rikers — and in doing so is skirting rules and reform efforts at the troubled jail facility.

The department’s actions at West resulted in multiple minimum standard violations over its use of the facility for restrictive housing for 26 inmates, including some designated as having serious mental illness.

These inmates are currently “confined behind double cell doors and in their cells 23 hours a day.”

They are being held “not for medical isolation purposes or as punishment for an infraction,” according to the board.

“Inmates are denied access to a full-serviced law library, may be denied the right to practice their religion in a congregate setting, receive their meals through food slots on their inner cell door, and are confined to individual cages for recreation—all in violation of the board’s minimum standards,” BOC’s general counsel Michele M. Ovesey wrote the department.

The department’s actions at West appear to reinforce some of the fears of legal observers and reform advocates. Major reform efforts have been announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his DOC commissioner Joseph Ponte over the past three years, aimed at fixing the “culture of violence” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara described at Rikers.

These reforms — some done voluntarily, some through legal settlement — have touched every part of the Department of Corrections, from its officer recruiting and training to the transfer of 16- and 17-year-olds off the island.

The use of solitary confinement in particular became a focal point for change. The June 2015 suicide of Kalief Browder, who spent two of his three years at Rikers in solitary confinement after being arrested at 16 for theft, highlighted what reform advocates argue is the cruel and destructive practice of being locked away in “the bing.”

De Blasio and Ponte have initiated a number of reforms on the issue. Inmates under 21 are no longer eligible for solitary. New restrictive housing units were meant to give correction officers options for dealing with violent inmates, while the Board of Corrections created new rules for the amount of time inmates could spend in punitive segregation at any given time, as well as ways for inmates to challenge punishments through due process.

Yet observers have long expressed concerns that the department’s commitment to solitary confinement reforms were less than absolute. The frequent requests for and granting of variances to the board’s rules around the use of punitive segregation appeared to suggest as much, even as Ponte urged patience as he and his staff continued the difficult task of implementing reforms while dealing with the need for safety among staff and inmates.

Reform advocates say the department’s actions at West confirm their concerns.

“We are glad that the Board has called the Department to task on their public claims to be moving away from solitary confinement, while behind the scenes they are creating new, and even less regulated, solitary confinement units to hold vulnerable people,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, head of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, in a statement.

Advocates expressed surprise to learn that the department was using West to house more than two dozen inmates. Up until this point, the view had been that the department had used West for one-off confinements of specific inmates, and had perhaps allowed some mission creep in isolating the most challenging inmates at Rikers at West absent a specific policy decision.

The board’s reprimanding letter notes throughout that current actions and the unseen proposed plan fail to meet minimum board standards on issues of time locked in cells, the ability for religious functions, and the confinement of people with serious mental illness.

Observers note that the board appears to offer the department the option to request variances to its rules at its next meeting on October 11, which may allow the violations identified by the board to continue ahead of a revised version of the department’s plan for the facility at a later date.

The department said the plan itself was meant to address previous BOC concerns over its actions at West, and that it is reviewing the new recommendations, such as implementing due-process protections for inmates at West to inform them of why they’re being held and to allow them to challenge their placement in restrictive housing. Likewise, the board suggests the department review the inmates in the facility to compare them to those housed in other secure facilities.

“We take this notice seriously and are reviewing the recommended courses of action,” DOC spokesman Peter Thorne said in a statement.