Jail boss: No solitary for teen inmates by Dec. 31

AP News
|
Posted: Sep 29, 2014 5:30 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — By the end of the year, city corrections officials will end their longstanding practice of sending 16- and 17-year-old inmates to solitary confinement for breaking rules in the nation's second-largest jail system.

The policy change, detailed in a memo from Commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mayor Bill de Blasio last week, follows comments made by Ponte at a public meeting before the oversight board earlier this month in which he detailed reforms to the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

Last month, a scathing Department of Justice review of how 16- to 18-year-old inmates are jailed on Rikers found that among other things, they are too often subjected to solitary, which is called punitive segregation in New York but referred to by inmates and guards as The Bing.

In one 21-month period, that review found, an average of 150 young inmates received solitary time each month, resulting in a total of 143,823 days in isolation.

About 300 of the 11,500 daily inmates in city jails are 16 and 17 years old, according to the Department of Correction. Of the roughly 530 inmates in solitary on any given day, around 50 of them are teens.

Ponte's proposed reforms, such as ending 23-hour confinement for the adolescents, also included eliminating solitary for about 300 inmates who owe time from previous incarcerations and allowing captains to dole out alternatives to solitary confinement, such as timeouts and the withholding of recreation time, for minor infractions that don't involve serious violence or weapons possession.

They come as the watchdog agency charged with overseeing city jails, the New York City Board of Correction, continues its lengthy process of changing city rules that dictate when and how solitary confinement can be used.

The new rules on solitary, which will carry the force of law, will seek to cement this policy change and others to "prevent what's been happening at Rikers from happening again," board member Bryanne Hamill said.

"We know now how extremely harmful the use of solitary is on adolescents," she said. "We're very pleased he's doing this."

Ponte, a reformer who was credited with reducing by two-thirds the use of solitary in Maine prisons, also said in the memo, first reported by the New York Times, that he has recruited more adolescent-friendly staff, has cut from 33-to-1 to 15-to-1 the inmate to staff ratio in the adolescent jail, and has revamped training to include trauma-informed care.

Advocates have long decried the use of solitary, which they say can exacerbate existing mental illnesses and serves no rehabilitative purpose. Jail guards say it's a necessary tool to control unruly and violent inmates.

Ponte's memo left unanswered what plans he has for 18-year-olds, who by a recent change in state law must be separated from the 16- and 17-year-olds and are to be grouped on Rikers in young adult housing for 18- to 21-year-olds. The DOJ report on adolescent inmates, which recommended moving them entirely off of Rikers, considered adolescents inmates between 16- and 18-years-old.

A City Council oversight hearing on the DOJ report is scheduled for next week.