Would NYC’s new rules for solitary confinement have saved the life of 19-year-old Andy Henriquez?
Henriquez was brought to Rikers Island when he was only 16. Three years later, he was still awaiting trial when he was placed in isolation. Henriquez had complained of chest pains for seven months before being thrown in ‘the bing,’ but no one at the prison took him seriously.
Health and correction staff ignored Henriquez’ increasingly-dire calls for help, to the point where other inmates on his block began shouting for someone to save him. But no one ever did. Henriquez suffered alone and in extreme pain, given only a prescription for hand cream under the wrong name, until he eventually died from a tear in his aorta.
The question of whether things might have turned out differently for Henriquez stood out in my mind on Tuesday as all 7 members of NYC’s Board of Correction (BOC) voted to adopt changes to the city’s solitary confinement policy.
The amendments featured an end to solitary confinement for all 18 to 21 year old inmates by 2016, “provided that sufficient resources are made available to the Department for necessary staffing and implementation of necessary alternative programming.” Effective immediately, solitary confinement will no longer be used for 16 and 17 year old inmates, those suffering from ‘serious mental illness,’ or those with owed-time.
The amendments also pave the way for the construction of a controversial new isolation area on Rikers Island called the ‘Enhanced Supervision Housing unit,’ or the ESHU, which will cost $14.8 million, introduce 250 new isolation beds to the island and have its own specially-trained, full time staff. Continue reading
After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.
Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.
The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.
Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”
In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading
A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.
Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.
Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items: Continue reading
For years, the nation’s largest for-profit prison healthcare provider — Corizon Health Services, Inc. — has repeatedly won lucrative government contracts despite numerous appalling reports and hundreds of lawsuits for inmate abuse and employee misconduct.
But with the possibility of a federal intervention looming over their heads, NYC officials are considering revoking their contract with Corizon. The AP reports that anonymous leaks from the de Blasio administration claim the city drawing up plans to replace its private contract with a public or non-profit healthcare model. Continue reading
NYC city council held a hearing yesterday featuring department of corrections commissioner and fabled “reformer” Joseph Ponte.
It was cathartic to see some city council members confronting Ponte over the DOC’s utter failure to protect young prisoners on Rikers Island. In discussing the case of Kaleif Browder (a 16 year old boy who was wrongfully imprisoned and spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement) city councilman Daniel Dromm (D) told Ponte that officials “subjected this child to torture. There’s no other way to put it.”
Nonetheless, Ponte seemed to be unmoved by the gravity of the situation. He continued to parrot his weak assortment of promises to reduce violence and phase out the use of solitary for a small number of the facility’s incarcerated children. Unfortunately, the “reforms” have more holes than swiss cheese, and are so weak as to suggest they would be more accurately described as ‘damage control.’
When confronted about his promotion of two Rikers officials to top positions, despite emerging evidence that their staff routinely underreported jail fights, Ponte never once hinted he would do the reasonable thing, which would be to review his decision in light of this new information. Instead, he pretty much tried to shrug it off: Continue reading
The Bronx Defenders recently put out a report on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island amid a growing number of reports of violence, abuse and mismanagement at the facility.
The study, titled Voices from the Box (PDF), surveyed 59 inmates between July 2013 and August 2014 and it confirms the horrifying and widespread use of solitary confinement against adolescent and mentally ill inmates.
Researchers found that half of Rikers prisoners in solitary were between the ages of 16 and 20, and 20% of them were teenagers. They also found that 72% of inmates in solitary were diagnosed with mental health issues, and “received grossly inadequate treatment” during isolation.
The United Nations believes that anything over a generous 15 days in isolation is tantamount to torture, yet the median number of days in confinement spent by Rikers inmates was 90. Many inmates spent over 23 hours a day in their cell. Continue reading
On September 29th, the New York Times reported that the New York City Department of Corrections was eliminating solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates at Rikers.
The department claimed it would be the “first round of changes” and “solitary confinement [would] be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.'”
New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte
While it’s fantastic news that these young inmates will no longer be subject to punitive segregation, the 16-17 year old age group at Rikers is a small portion of the population; only 300 of the 11,000 prisoners in the city’s jails would qualify for such leniency. The NYCDOC says there are 51 youths in solitary right now, but it’s unclear how many would see relief from this policy change.
It’s also great to hear the NYCDOC plans to replace solitary with ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences […] and steps designed to pre-empt incidents,’ however vague that may be. If it reduces the use of solitary confinement, it can’t hurt.
But I think it all misses the point: is there reason to believe that Rikers is the right environment for young people? Continue reading