Late Push to Nix Solitary Confinement in New York City

An NYC Department of Corrections vehicle leaves the Rikers Island facility in Queens, in New York
Advocates are pushing the City Council to ban solitary confinement before the end of the year.
Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

With just weeks remaining until new elected leaders take office, more than 200 organizations signed a letter asking the City Council to pass legislation banning solitary confinement in New York City.

The letter, delivered to term-limited Speaker Corey Johnson on December 1, was led by the #HALTSolitary Campaign and included several LGBTQ-driven groups such as the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, Rise and Resist, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys’ LGBTQ Caucus, the sex work advocacy coalition DecrimNY, and Gender Equality New York.

Pressure to reform solitary confinement grew in recent years following the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was neglected by guards as she suffered a medical emergency in a “restrictive housing” cell at Rikers Island. Fourteen people have died in city jails this year alone, including a gay 24-year-old, Esias Johnson, whose family has demanded answers after they heard he was screaming for medical help in the time leading up to his death.

The letter follows a November executive order by Mayor Bill de Blasio delaying his plan to replace solitary confinement with a so-called Risk Management Accountability System — which is said to give inmates at least 10 hours of “daily programming” outside of their cells. The letter, however, states that the Risk Management Accountability System’s plan would really only provide one hour of recreation alone and one hour of programming with staff in a shared space.

“People being locked in these spaces will suffer the same or similar harm as in other forms of solitary confinement,” the letter states. “The harms of solitary confinement stem from the social isolation and lack of meaningful human engagement. People will not have access to congregate programming or activities with other people and will not even be in the same space with other incarcerated people.”

The letter further stresses the importance of solitary reform by pointing to the State Legislature’s passage of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act earlier this year. That measure, which was signed into law, curtailed the use of solitary confinement to 15 days and required therapy and other rehabilitative solutions to be offered to inmates.

City legislation banning the use of solitary confinement in city jails was proposed in December of last year by out gay Councilmember Daniel Dromm of Queens. The measure drew more than 30 co-sponsors.