Last week we wrote about the dramatic increase in the use of solitary confinement currently underway on Rikers Island. By the end of this year, Rikers will have close to 1,000 “punitive segregation” units for a population of 12,700 inmates–giving the island prison one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country (and thus, the industrialized world). The majority of the prisoners on Rikers are awaiting trial, while the rest are serving short prison terms of up to one year. Approximately one-third of them suffer from mental illness, and more than 800 are juveniles.
The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) and Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) say that the increase in solitary confinement is a necessary response to increased violence at Rikers. A number of groups that advocate for prisoners disagree. Among these is the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners Rights Project (PRP), which, “protects and enforces the legal rights of New York City and New York State prisoners through litigation, advice, and assistance to individual prisoners,” according to its mission statement. PRP is the host and co-sponsor of a meeting to take place on December 1 to discuss issues of concern in New York City jails, including the rising use of solitary. In response to a set of questions emailed by Solitary Watch, the PRP’s Sarah Kerr, John Boston, and Jonathan Chasan provided the following analysis.
SW: The DOC is clearly presenting what they call a “chronic shortage” of punitive segregation beds as a primary reason for the recent rise in violent incidents at Rikers. They are also presenting the increase in isolation beds as the best–perhaps the only–way to deal with this problem. What would you say in response to this?
PWP: We do not believe that there is a genuine shortage of segregation beds. In fact, the jail population is several thousand prisoners lower than it was in the late 1990s, when there were fewer segregation beds than there are today. To the contrary we are finding that there are problems with Department of Correction policies and practices which are artificially inflating the need for segregation beds without dealing with problems in jail management.
For example, the disciplinary process is often a sham in which due process requirements are not observed. The Legal Aid Society has received numerous complaints from prisoners who report being falsely marked as refusing their disciplinary hearings, and who were then sentenced to punitive segregation without having a hearing. Punitive segregation sentences are artificially inflated by bringing multiple charges for the same actions if they affected more than one person.