New York City Council passes ban on solitary confinement in jails

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The New York City Council voted on Wednesday to ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails, with sponsors of the bill arguing that the practice is cruel and leads to heightened risks of injury or death for people in custody.

Mayor Eric Adams and the labor union representing the city’s jail guards have opposed the legislation, saying it will make it more difficult to protect jail workers from violence by detainees, most of whom are awaiting trial and were denied or unable to afford release on bail.

Adams, a former police captain, has been trying to avoid a federal takeover of the violence-plagued jail complex on Rikers Island, with the U.S. Department of Justice saying the city has failed to move quickly enough to enact promised safety reforms.

When asked on Tuesday whether he would veto the bill, Adams, a Democrat, declined to say. The council has promised to overrule any veto, which requires the vote of at least two thirds of its members. Thirty-nine lawmakers voted to pass the bill, and seven opposed.

Under current “punitive segregation” rules, jail officials can punish detainees who are violent or otherwise breaks jail rules by isolating them in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for up to 60 days straight for the most serious infractions.

The bill passed by the Democratic-controlled council will allow a detainee to be placed into “de-escalation confinement” for up to four hours after an episode of violence, with wellness checks by jail staff every 15 minutes.

The bill also allows any detainee found to have committed a serious infraction to be transferred from a jail’s general population to restrictive housing for up to 60 days in a single year. But the detainee cannot be isolated in a cell away from shared areas for more than 10 hours a day. Jail officials can also continue to punish a detainee by removing privileges.

“The one thing we have said is: we should not use isolation, which people have proven is torture,” Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate and the bill’s prime sponsor, told reporters. He noted that many people held on Rikers already have mental health issues, which prolonged isolation can exacerbate.

The United Nations has said solitary confinement can amount to torture, and Williams has cited a Cornell University study that found prolonged isolation can lead to “devastating psychological consequences” and is linked to greater risk of premature death even after release, by suicide, violence or in accidents.

The bill has been supported by public defender groups, prison reform advocates and families of people who have died in custody on Rikers Island.

Opposing the bill, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has said that, even with the current punitive segregation rules in place, there were more than 6,000 episodes of detainees assaulting jail guards in the last three years, including 50 cases of sexual assault.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)