[Ppnews] NY Plans to Double Solitary Confinement Cells on Rikers Island

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Nov 21 16:17:47 EST 2011

City Plans to Double Solitary Confinement Cells on Rikers Island

November 21, 2011
by <http://solitarywatch.com/author/casellaj4/>Jean Casella

By Jean Casella and Dina Levy

Over the past year, the New York City Department 
of Corrections (NYCDOC) has quietly implemented a 
massive expansion in the number of solitary 
confinement units on Rikers Island. By the end of 
2011, the number of “punitive segregation” cells 
at Rikers will have grown by 34 percent, from 602 
to 958–and further expansions may soon bring the 
number to more than 1200. Some of these cells, in 
which prisoners are isolated for up to 23 hours a 
day, hold juveniles, inmates with mental illness, 
and pre-trial detainees not yet convicted of any 
crime. Once the expansion is complete, New York 
City’s island jail will have one of the highest 
rates of solitary confinement in the country.

In increasing its use of solitary confinement at 
this time, NYDOC is bucking a national trend. A 
growing body of academic research suggests that 
solitary confinement can cause severe 
damage, and may in fact increase both 
behavior and 
rates among prisoners. In recent years, criminal 
justice reformers and human rights and civil 
liberties advocates have increasingly questioned 
the widespread and routine use of solitary 
confinement in America’s prisons and jails, and 
states from 
have taken steps to 
the number of inmates they hold in isolation.

In New York City, in contrast, the Department of 
Corrections is doing everything possible to 
expand its use of solitary confinement. “Every 
bed that can be converted is being converted” to 
punitive segregation, 
Commissioner Dora Schriro said at a November 17 
meeting of the City Council’s Criminal Justice 
Committee. Schriro was grilled about a spike in 
violence on Rikers, both at the meeting and in 
run-ins with the Rikers guards’ union. The 
Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association 
an increase in inmate attacks on the large 
backlog of prisoners waiting to serve their time 
in “the Bing,” as the punitive segregation units 
are commonly called. In response, Shriro promised 
that punitive segregation at Rikers would 
eventually increase by 45 percent over current 
levels, bringing the total number of Bing cells 
to 1250. 
to the 
News, ”It costs the cash-strapped department 
thousands of dollars to convert jail cells into 
solitary sections. The so-called ‘bing’ cells 
also require extra staffing because guards must 
escort these inmates everywhere.”

Sentences in the Bing range from days to months, 
and multiple sentences can add up to a year or 
more. During this time, inmates leave their cells 
only for short periods of segregated exercise and 
in order to bathe, attend religious services, or 
receive visits. “Punitive segregation is one of 
several management strategies for preventing and 
reducing violence in the jails,” Sharman Stein, 
Deputy Commissioner for Public Information at the 
NYDOC, said in an email to Solitary Watch. She 
added that the NYDOC also utilizes a reward 
system “to incentivize pro-social behavior.”

Nevertheless, inmates can end up doing time in 
the Bing not only for violent offenses, but for 
nonviolent infractions ranging from insolence 
toward guards to testing positive for drugs to 
possessing contraband of any kind. (In a recent 
high-profile case, rapper Lil Wayne 
a month of punitive segregation for having a 
smuggled iPod in his cell.) Schriro insists that 
the backlog of inmates awaiting Bing time is made 
up of nonviolent offenders only.

Critics believe that solitary confinement is 
overused, rather than under-utilized, on Rikers. 
“DOC should find methods that are rehabilitative 
not punitive,” says Jennifer Parish, Director of 
Criminal Justice Advocacy at the Urban Justice 
Center. Advocacy groups including the Urban 
Justice Center, Legal Aid Society, and 
Correctional Association are 
a strategy session on December 1 to discuss the 
problems at Rikers, including the dramatic growth in solitary confinement.

Some critics argue that large-scale punitive 
segregation is a misguided response to prison 
violence. “Prison officials often cite a decrease 
in violence after expanding the use of solitary,” 
said Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who served 
on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and has 
conducted studies on the effects of solitary 
confinement. “I think this needs to be placed in 
context.  Of course when inmates cannot interact 
with each other or with staff they simply cannot 
engage in violent behavior. But this does not 
mean that the problem of violence is thereby 
addressed. You can put a dog in a cage and beat 
it and starve it and kick it all you want. It 
certainly won’t be violent as a result. Until, that is, you open the cage.”

As Grassian pointed out in an interview with 
Solitary Watch, “The cages at Rikers will, 
someday, open.” A majority of inmates in the 
island jail are in detention awaiting trial, and 
the rest are serving short sentences of up to one 
year, mostly for nonviolent crimes. So “virtually 
all the inmates confined in that way will, 
someday, get out, and be among us,” Grassian 
continued. “Then the pent up violence their 
confinement caused will be unleashed, not in 
solitary, but out among us–in the community.”

According to Sharman Stein, adolescent male 
inmates are among the most prone to violence, 
which is why the NYDOC has chosen to add 60 new 
isolation cells to Rikers Islands’ 
Robert N. Davoran Center, the facility that 
houses male teens. Stein stated that since 
expanding the number of solitary units at 
Davoren, fights have decreased by 39 percent over 
a six month period. At the same time, 
contend that isolation is 
damaging for teenagers.

“I couldn’t believe they would treat a child this 
way,” said Lisa Ortega, a single mother and 
community activist in the Bronx, whose 16-year 
old son was sent to Davoren last year on charges 
of possessing a firearm. In an interview, Ortega 
said her son suffers from extreme hyperactivity 
and other psychological problems, though he has 
not been clinically diagnosed. He was placed in 
solitary confinement within a week of arriving at 
Riker’s for “cursing at a guard.”

Ortega said that her son suffered terrible 
anxiety attacks while in solitary and talked 
openly about harming himself to escape the 
isolation. He was released from punitive 
segregation after about 10 days, but soon was 
accused of “inciting a riot” after getting into a 
fist fight. This time he was sentenced to 20 days 
in the Bing, and his physical health deteriorated 
along with his mental condition. “I was shocked 
when I saw him,” Ortega said. “He had lost 20 
pounds, and his hair was falling out. A 
sixteen-year-old boy whose hair is falling out!”

Ortega’s son is now facing an 80-day sentence in 
solitary confinement, once again for fighting. 
Ortega believes strongly that her child would 
benefit greatly from a thorough medical 
evaluation, a formal diagnosis, and an 
appropriate course of treatment. So far she has 
been unable to get Riker’s to provide that level 
of care. “They gave him some anxiety medicine 
after he threatened to hurt himself. That was the end of it.”

One-third of the prisoners on Rikers have been 
diagnosed with mental illness, making the island 
jail effectively the largest in-patient 
psychiatric facility in New York State. While the 
NYDOC maintains several special mental health 
units, it also has two punitive segregation wings 
designated specifically for inmates with mental 
illness–and advocates say that the mentally ill are found throughout the Bings.

Solitary confinement has been shown to 
psychological damage to prisoners without 
underlying psychiatric conditions. (One study 
showed reduced EEG activity after as little as 
one week in solitary.) For those with mental 
illness, isolation can be particularly 
to Terry Kupers, a clinical psychiatrist and 
professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, 
solitary confinement is “an extreme hazard to the 
mental health and wellbeing” of inmates who are 
suffering from or prone to serious mental 
illness. “It causes irreparable emotional damage 
and psychiatric disability as well an extreme 
mental anguish and suffering, and in some cases 
presents a risk of death by suicide.”

Yet by exhibiting the symptoms of untreated or 
inadequately treated mental illness, these very 
inmates are more likely than others to land in 
the Bing. The fractured system creates a 
perpetual cycle of crime and punishment which can 
be extremely difficult to break.

Randi Sinnreich, a social worker at Bronx 
Defenders, related one example of how this 
paradox plays out. Several years ago she 
represented a young man who had been clinically 
diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Charged with 
stealing a cell phone and unable to afford bail, 
her client was forced to wait for his trail on 
Rikers Island. When he arrived at the jail, he 
was misdiagnosed and then denied the necessary 
medication that would control his disease. As a 
result, his behavior became erratic and he was 
soon serving time in punitive segregation. Living 
in extreme isolation triggered more 
outbursts,  and following each episode his sentence in solitary was extended.

Sinnreich spent countless hours working through 
the administrative red-tape at Riker’s in attempt 
to get her client a psychological re-evaluation. 
She ultimately succeeded, and his condition was 
re-classified, but not before he had served 
almost a full year in solitary confinement while 
awaiting trial. Sinnreich said she worries that 
with more than 356 new solitary confinement beds 
to fill, a growing number of prisoners in need of 
mental health treatment will instead be spending 
more time in 23-hour-a-day lockdown.

In September, the Bloomberg Administration 
announced a new initiative designed to address 
the high rate of mentally ill prisoners in the 
city’s jail system. According to a 
release, the initiative’s steering committee is 
“committed to investigating the specific 
challenges this population faces and ensuring 
their needs are in fact being addressed.”

While encouraged by the announcement, advocates 
for prisoners with mental illness are perplexed 
by the NYCDOC’s decision to simultaneously 
undertake the largest expansion of solitary 
confinement units in recent memory. According to 
the Urban Justice Center’s Jennifer Parish, the 
two initiatives are directly at odds, since “it 
is well documented that solitary confinement has 
a negative impact on mental health.”

Once the expansion of punitive segregation at 
Rikers is completed and the cells filled to 
capacity, close to 10 percent of the islands 
average daily population of 12,700 inmates will 
be in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. This exceeds even 
the rate of disciplinary confinement in New York 
State’s prisons, which at 7.6 percent is the 
highest in the nation, 
to a report by the Correctional Association. 
Nationwide, the rate of solitary confinement is 
thought to be between 2 and 4 percent, which 
itself far exceeds the rates of solitary 
confinement in other industrialized countries.

Civil Liberties Union, 
Friends Service Committee, and 
Religious Campaign Against Torture are among the 
national groups that have taken a strong stand 
against what the ACLU calls the “dangerous 
overuse of solitary confinement in the United 
States.” In October, 
Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on 
Torture, called on UN member nations to ban 
nearly all uses of solitary confinement. Mendez 
criticized precisely the kinds of practices that 
are alive and growing on Rikers Island, stating 
that the isolation of prisoners should never 
exceed 15 days, and that it “can amount to 
torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment 
or punishment when used as a punishment, during 
pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a 
prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”

Beyond concerns about its innate cruelty, 
Grassian argues that solitary confinement is bad 
for society as well as for the prisoners 
themselves. Inmates who have spent time in 
solitary on Rikers “will someday leave prison,” 
he says, “and our prison system will have 
succeeded in making them as out of control and 
dangerous to the community as it possibly 
could.  Rikers will not have gotten tough on 
crime.  It will have gotten tough on us–on the 
community to which these individuals will someday return.”

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