Over the last two years, the Department of Correction has nearly doubled the number of "punitive segregation" cells—the Department's term for solitary confinement—at the jail facilities at Rikers Island. The 44 percent jump, DOC Commissioner Dora Schriro testified at a City Council budget hearing this month, constitutes "the most significant increase in the department's history," one that prisoners rights groups say gives New York City one of the highest solitary confinement rates in the nation.
At press time, 914 inmates were being held in segregation at Rikers, meaning they are typically confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Jail officials say this is a necessary tool to curtail an uptick in violence, maintain safety and order and deal with inmates who commit serious rule violations.
But prisoner advocacy groups say the increase is alarming at a time when the inmate population in the city's jails is at a low, and in light of a growing body of research that says solitary confinement does little to curb bad behavior, and could actually make some inmates act more violently.
Correctional systems across the country have been reducing their use of segregated units, and this fall, a United Nations expert called an all countries to ban the practice except under the most extreme circumstances, likening the mental health effects of prolonged solitary confinement to torture.
"We're at a terrible point where management is really overly punitive, and not able to grasp that it's wrong, that it's not working," says Sarah Kerr, of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners Rights Project. "The idea that other places are realizing the error and trying to reform, and New York is doing the opposite, is really a problem."
"It's interesting that DOC is doing this when the jail population is falling," says Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center. Indeed, from 2001 to 2010, admissions to city jails fell by 20 percent and their average daily population dropped by 10 percent. "I find it incredible that there's actually a need for this, and that there aren't management strategies they could use to address the problem."
Split lips, broken bones
Violence has long been the most-cited rationale for solitary confinement, and the DOC is under considerable pressure to make sure its facilities are safe.
"Our core objective is to protect both the inmate population and the workforce from harm," Commissioner Schriro says.
For the last several years, union officials who represent jail workers have complained of an uptick in violence against their members. In 2010, there were 84 incidents of inmate assaults on staff resulting in serious injury, according to DOC statistics, up from 63 in 2009 and 53 in 2008.
"Correction officers bear the brunt of it by being assaulted on a daily basis," says Norman Seabrook, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA). "Every day, every other day, three or four times a day, I'm getting a text message or an e-mail from the Department of Correction notifying me of how many of my correction officers have been assaulted—split lips, sutures, broken bones. This goes on and on and on and this has to stop."
Seabrook blames the increase, in part, on insufficient staff numbers, saying the DOC is not hiring enough correction officers to replace those who retire, get promoted or leave for other reasons.
At the budget hearing last month, Commissioner Schriro said that while the department is hiring several hundred new posts, there is still a shortfall in the department's budget for authorized uniformed staff.
But union officials have also pointed to a shortage of punitive segregation units—known as "Bing" beds—for putting officers at risk. Last fall, the DOC was blasted after media outlets reported on a backlog of inmates who had been sentenced to solitary confinement but who were being held with the rest of the general population because there weren't enough segregated beds. In one incident in November, the Daily News reported that two men involved in a violent slashing in a recreation room were supposed to have been in solitary for previous infractions.
This backlog is the main reason prison officials give for the recent expansion of segregated housing units. In 2009, DOC spokeswoman Sharman Stein said, there were over 1,200 inmates waiting to be placed in solitary. Since then, the department has added 325 units, bringing the total capacity to 1,035 solitary beds, or seven percent of the average daily jail population (a number the DOC says is comparable to other correctional systems, but which advocacy groups argue is much higher than the average—the Legal Aid Society says that the nationwide solitary rate is between two and four percent.)
Today, Stein says, only a "handful" of inmates owe Bing time.
"Resolving this backlog was important to address – all too often, inmates who had remained in general population pending imposition of the punishment for assaulting another inmate or staff, harmed another person," Stein wrote in an e-mail.
Running the New York City jail system, the second largest in the country, is not a simple task. The population at Rikers is an ever-changing one. There are over 87,000 admissions and more than 88,000 releases a year, according to the DOC. Unlike the state prisons, a majority of the population at Rikers is made up of detainees awaiting trial. Some are felons awaiting transfer to a prison facility upstate. Others are those serving short-term misdemeanor sentences, generally less than a year.
Schriro says that while the number of inmates being held in the city's jails is at a low, Rikers has seen an increase in the types of inmates who are prone to bad behavior and who are responsible for the majority of jail incidents: "high-custody" inmates, deemed by jail officials as more inclined to institutional violence, including inmates with gang affiliations, adolescents and the mentally ill.
"The inmate census is lower now than before, but the inmates who are in jail are far more difficult to manage and far more damaged than the inmate population previously," Schriro says.
"The very good news is the vast majority of inmates in our custody are violation-free. They're here to work through their case and then be gone," the Commissioner says. "But there are several populations in particular that have the greatest likelihood of breaking the rules, breaking the law, assaulting a member of the workforce or causing serious injury. There's this group that's pretty dedicated to those endeavors."
Overused and overly punitive?
Prison advocacy groups, however, dispute the DOC's assertions that they need more punitive segregation units. The backlog in inmates waiting for solitary beds, they say, is not due to lack of space but on the DOC's reliance on segregation as a punishment and as a management tool.
"My feeling is, it's being overused," says Barbara Hamilton, a former law librarian at the DOC who now works as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, handling appeals for Rikers detainees challenging their punitive segregation time. "Sometimes it's used as retaliation, sometimes it's used to control mental health inmates."
Mentally ill inmates, experts say, are more prone to violent outbursts and other disruptive behavior in jails and prisons. At Rikers, just over a third of the population has a mental health diagnosis. Mentally ill inmates who violate rules and get sentenced to segregation time are placed in what's called a Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates, or MHAUII—200 solitary confinement beds where, according to Stein, there is increased access to clinicians staffed by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Research has shown that psychiatric symptoms are aggravated by the type of isolation used in punitive segregation, and advocates say even the MHAUII units are not sufficient and lack the resources for dealing with inmates with serious mental health problems.
"It's nothing like what would qualify as a mental health treatment unit," says Parish. "They have some mental health staff who checks on people every so often."
(At the same time, the DOC has been criticized in the past for not segregating mentally ill inmates. In 2001, for example, a detainee was beaten to death by his cellmate, a 19-year-old inmate whose own lawyers said should have been placed in solitary for his psychotic tendencies).
Schriro says Rikers staff carefully evaluates the needs of every inmate to determine where they should be housed. The department has spent the last two years fine-tuning their inmate classification system, "scoring" inmates based on factors like mental and medical health needs, as well as their propensity towards violent behavior. Someone deemed high-security, for example—like a known gang member—might be put in a housing unit where food is brought to their cell, instead of one where they need to be escorted to the chow hall, reducing the chance of a fight that might happen en route.
Inmates are re-assessed every 60 days, Schriro said, and good behavior can lower an inmate's score, which can get them moved into a less restrictive housing unit that offers some kind of reward incentive, like a common room that has two television sets instead of one.
Schriro adds that the DOC's hands are tied in many ways by city rules, set by the Board of Corrections' minimum standards, that allow all inmates in the general population—essentially, anyone other than those sentenced to punitive segregation—the option of leaving their cells or "locking out" for up to 14 hours a day. If the DOC were given more discretion in determining lock out periods for individual inmates, she says, they wouldn't depend as much on punitive segregation.
Further still, she insists, the city's solitary units are less restrictive than those in the state prisons or in so-called "super max" facilities, where inmates are often placed indefinitely and for years on end. At Rikers, where the average length of stay is 50 days, punitive segregation is more a "temporary assignment," she says, one that's largely reserved for inmates who've committed a grade 1 offense, typically a violent infraction.
Inmates who commit lesser violations, grade 2 or 3—say, drug possession or disobeying orders—will often receive less harsh reprimands, Schriro says. "But for that group where incentives do not entice, where lesser sanctions are not sufficient to otherwise modify their conduct, punitive beds become an important strategy," she adds. "Not by any means the only strategy, but it's something that's necessary, just as jail itself is."
Inmates rights groups, however, assert that it's common for individuals to get Bing time for minor offenses, like disobeying orders, and that much of the discretion is left in the hands of correction officers. The Legal Aid Society, which represents many Rikers inmates and detainees, says clients report a "culture of brutality." Many accused of committing violence are often reacting to assaults committed first by officers, advocates say, pointing to DOC statistics indicating an increase in uses of force by jail staff as proof.
"I don't think it's running as smoothly as the Commissioner thinks," Hamilton says.
Victor Herrera, 45, was locked up in Rikers in 2010 for a drugs possession charge. He describes himself as a "boisterous" inmate and says he was disliked by the staff for complaining about his meals—he's a vegetarian—and for disobeying orders. He estimates he spent four or five months in the Bing, a period during which, he says, he was at the mercy of correction officers.
"Every need has to be met by the COs," he says. "They don't care about the inmates, they have this view that inmates are the lowest on the totem pole, that they're trash."
He says some officers would intentionally not deliver his meals as retaliation for bad behavior, and that he was routinely ignored if he tried to request something. He would take to covering up the small window looking into his cell—a security violation, because officers then couldn't check in on him—just to get someone's attention.
"They'd walk right by my cell and I could bang and yell and scream and nobody does anything," he says. "You can talk until your mouth is dry and they will ignore you."
‘No better way to create a violent individual'
Inmates held at the Bing are typically on lockdown for 23 hours a day, experts say. They are allowed out for an hour of recreation, required by the Board of Corrections' standards, and for occasional meetings with lawyers or to meet with religious advisers, but their access to showers can be reduced at the discretion of staff. Reading materials and meals are brought to inmates in their cells by guards.
The isolation imposed by segregated confinement, many experts say, can cause severe psychological distress, even in otherwise healthy people. According to Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who studies the effects of solitary confinement, isolating inmates can result in agitation, paranoia, panic attacks, hallucinations and problems with impulse control—symptoms that can make someone already prone to violence even more so.
"There's no better way to create a violent individual than to put them in solitary," Grassian says. "Are there moments when a person should be housed by themselves until they calm down? Sure. We do it in psychiatric hospitals. But we do it in situations where there's an effort in re-engaging the patient. That's usually in a matter of minutes, hours, but not weeks, months or many years."
That's the argument that critics of solitary confinement make—that as a tactic to control violence, it just doesn't work. Jails should attempt to focus on fixing their management techniques, advocates say, and focus on rehabilitative efforts over lockdown.
"It may sound good politically to say you're tough on crime, but what you're really doing is being tough on the community, because we're going to see those people on the outside," Grassian says.