By SHANECE McGREGOR
In December 2014, Punitive segregation, also referred to as solitary confinement, was abolished for adolescent inmates ages 16 to 17, in the New York City jails.
On Oct. 11, the city Department of Corrections moved to end punitive segregation for young adults aged 19 through 21 years old.
In some ways this is a big leap for the Corrections Department, given studies that found solitary confinement along with harsh treatment often worsens inmates’ conditions and leads to higher rates of suicide than the general prison population.
The experience of isolation makes it more difficult for inmates to interact with others once they are released from solitary. Mental health deteriorates — causing a greater likelihood of violent behavior.
But on the other hand, according to the Correction Officers Benevolent Association website, “It Also Reduces Staff/Inmate Physical Confrontations, And Injuries To both Parties.”
Punitive segregation was the topic of an Oct. 11 hearing before the New York City Board of Correction, a nine-person board with authority to oversee the jail system.
Its members sat at a long table on a stage as the Correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, stood at a podium below the stage. Several of his aides joined him. According to the board’s website, its job is to regulate “conditions of confinement and correctional health and mental health care” as well as to advance “improvement and change toward smaller, safer, fairer, and more humane jails.”
At the hearing, the board discussed a dizzying number of new and revised programs aimed at solving the problem of how best to treat adolescents confined on Rikers Island.
The board had to decide whether to issue variances – exceptions, basically, that the city Corrections Department requested to depart from previous decisions about how the jails should be run.
The first measure considered was the city’s request to extend the new-ish Enhanced Supervision Housing program, which involved mingling young adults with adults in special units for violent inmates.
Is that a good idea?
One board member, Bryanne Hamill, a former Family Court judge, said the problem was that this program was originally intended only as a tool for adults, not the young adults who were also in it. .
Before that, there were two other programs created as tools to work with young adults as an alternative to punitive segregation: Transitional Repair Unit and Second Chance Housing. These programs were designed to encourage better behavior. Later came Secure, which was needed to house the more violent adolescents..
So when an inmate would commit a heinous act such as a slashing, he would immediately be sent to Secure.
Under the Enhanced Supervision Housing program, there would not be solitary confinement, but greater supervision of trouble-prone adult inmates, 19 and older. Many were skeptical about extending this new program — originally it was supposed to be temporary.
Ponte wanted the board to let him create a separate unit for inmates 18 to 21. That would get the younger inmates away from the adult inmates, but it also brought 18-year-olds into Enhanced Supervision.
According to the Corrections Department, keeping closer tabs on the inmates would help to prevent problems before they occurred.
The board soon approved the variances, but member Bryanne Hamill made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with the decision.
One problem she raised had to do with the fact that in the Enhanced Supervision Housing, inmates get seven hours outside the cell to interact with the staff and other inmates – better than solitary, but only half of what inmates in the general population get.
Hamill said the inmates in the unit were as a result forced to compromise either their educational or their social time – a choice between picking up a deck of cards or a book. She attempted to add a condition that three hours of school time not be deducted from adolescents’ seven hours out of cell time. But that was negated as the variances passed.
Hamill packed her things and before walking off stage announced her resignation as chair of the Correction Department’s Adolescent and Young Adult Advisory Board.
Hamill wasn’t the only one concerned about these new programs. Those who worked within the facility like Kelsey De Avila, the jail services social worker with Brooklyn Defender Services, expressed her concerns about “restrictive units sprouting up through out the department.” She said that the Corrections Department is continuing the use of solitary confinement methods for young adults within these new units. She urged the board to not only refuse the variance but to keep a closer eye on what is going on within the units.
Dale Wilker of the Legal Aid Society also was against the variance for similar reasons. He said that school hours should not be deducted from the seven-hour time outside the cell – and warned that the Corrections Department seemed to be repeating mistakes it had made with punitive segregation.
Nevertheless there are some who believe it is necessary for safety.
Albert Craig, a correctional officer for 20 years and an agent for the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, which represents over 8,000 correction officers, spoke out.
He said that the new variances need to be improved because the jails are nowhere close to safe. His ringing voice left a strong impression.
“You are violating your charter and it’s not true when you say you hear our complaint,” he said.
Craig complained that every time he has come to a Correction Board hearing, he heard correction officers depicted “as criminals who beat kids up.”
Craig said that actually, the officers were the ones would console the inmates whenever dangerous events took place. He blamed the board for the jails’ conditions.
With a look of sorrow he dove into the story of his brother who died in the Brooklyn House , and then the story of Kalief Brown. Kalief was was arrested at the age of 16, on charges of robbery, and imprisoned without conviction for three years.
“It’s not our fault,” he said. “We wanted him to go but your peers kept him there.”
Craig said that not only would judges continuously postpone hearings, but also the bails were too high, forcing people who were not convicted to stay in jail for extended periods of time. In many ways you can say Albert is right. According to city data, from 2003 to 2012, the average length of stay for a detainee has steadily risen.