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 45 percent, from 681 to a total of 990 cells. 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 psychological damage, and may in fact increase both violent behavior and suicide 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 Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce 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, NYDOC 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 recent run-ins with the Rikers guards’ union. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association attributes 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. Schriro promised that punitive segregation at Rikers is increasing dramatically, although it costs the NYDOC “thousands of dollars to convert jail cells into solitary sections,” according to the Daily News, and “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 received a month of punitive segregation for having a smuggled iPod in his cell.) Schriro said that the backlog of inmates awaiting Bing time is made up of nonviolent offenders only.