NEW YORK (AP) — Inmates held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island as punishment for violations during previous stints in jail are suing to stop the practice, known as owed time.
A class action lawsuit filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court says inmates are unduly placed in 23-hour confinement for breaking jailhouse rules in previous detentions, sometimes years earlier. For example, if an inmate is sentenced to a month in solitary confinement but is released or transferred before completing it, he can be forced to serve the remaining time during his next incarceration.
The practice, which experts say is unique to New York City, is described in the lawsuit as arbitrary and unfair because it doesn't allow for a hearing or other rights normally afforded under the internal disciplinary process.
A jails spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. A Law Department spokesman said officials are reviewing the lawsuit, which seeks an end to the practice and damages.
Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who was appointed this year by Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform the jails, said at a public meeting last month that the practice of owed solitary time likely would be eliminated.
But in a letter last week obtained by The Associated Press he said he would only do so if the oversight board charged with monitoring the jails approves a rules change to create a new $14.8 million "enhanced supervision housing" for 250 inmates the department deems most dangerous. That housing area would permit jailers to keep inmates locked in their cells for up to 17 hours a day, among other restrictions.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of inmates by The Legal Aid Society and other attorneys, says owed time should be eliminated no matter what.
It's not uncommon for inmates to rack up hundreds of days in solitary, also known as The Bing, for violations such as cursing at a guard, littering or fighting. That time can take a while to serve because such punishments exceed the city's capacity of 719 solitary beds.
Currently in the 11,000-inmate jail system, there is a backlog of 1,054 inmates who haven't served all their solitary time, and 247 of those owe solitary from previous stints, Ponte told state regulators last week in the letter.
According to the lawsuit, inmate Rudolph Kaval spent 7 1/2 months in solitary on Rikers in 2012 for time incurred during three previous jail stints in 1998, 1999 and 2011. The extended stay made him depressed and anxious, and it aggravated a back injury, the court papers say.
Another inmate, Devante James, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, earned 170 days during a 2012 stretch and was released in March 2013 before finishing his owed time. He was arrested again, sent back to Rikers and put in solitary in March 2014 to serve out the remainder of his historical time. During that time, his mental state deteriorated, and he became suicidal and cut himself, the lawsuit says.
Solitary confinement has become a key part of Ponte's reform plans. He also intends to eliminate the use of solitary for 16- and 17-year-old inmates by the end of the year, and the oversight board is moving to change city rules on how solitary can be doled out.