JAC Calendar




Board of Correction Meeting

Tuesday, July 14th

9 am meeting, 8:15 rally

455 1st Avenue at 26th Street

New York, NY


General Meeting

Tuesday, July 28

6 PM

Urban Justice Center

123 Williams Street, 16th Floor

New York, NY









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Over 12,000 New Yorkers are incarcerated on Rikers Island and in other city jails each day. Over 9,700 of those incarcerated each day are pre-trial detainees who are being held without being convicted of a crime. Most are there because they cannot afford bail. People being held in New York City jails face solitary confinementinadequate mental health services and a culture of brutality carried out by correction officers.




JAC Blog: News & Events


JAC Featured in Coverage of Board of Correction Vote

Solitary not yet over at Rikers, but advocates keep fighting

A group of prisoners’ rights activists didn’t stop a new isolation unit from being approved on January 13, but they did manage to push through some changes to the proposal, as well as long-overdue limitations to solitary confinement at Rikers Island, New York City’s massive island jail complex. In doing so, they went up against the powerful Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association.

The Jails Action Coalition is a grassroots group that has been pushing for an end to all forms of solitary confinement, as well as transparency and accountability in what goes on in New York City jails. Some are people who have spent time in jails and prisons. Others are people who work in these systems, such as lawyers, advocates and social workers. Still, others are family members of incarcerated people. For nearly three years, they’ve worked to shine light on jail practices that often remain out of the public eye, from publicizing and demanding accountability for preventable deaths on Rikers to helping push recent legislation requiring the Department of Correction, or DOC, to publicly report the number of people in solitary, the length of their stay and whether they were injured or assaulted.

In April 2013, the group petitioned the New York City Board of Correction, which establishes and monitors minimum standards around conditions in the city’s jails, to amend its minimum standards for the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as “punitive segregation.” The majority of people incarcerated on Rikers cannot afford bail and are awaiting trial. Some are serving sentences of one year or less. The board rejected the petition, but it did commission two reports on the use of solitary in New York City jails.

In September 2013, after both reports condemned solitary at Rikers, the Board of Correction voted to make new rules governing solitary confinement in the city’s jail system. But then they didn’t make them.

More than a year later, in November 2014, the DOC submitted a proposal to build a $14.8 million Enhanced Supervision Housing unit, or ESHU. According to the DOC, the ESHU would decrease jail violence by segregating up to 250 people who are identified as gang members, committed stabbings or slashings, are found with a scalpel, participate in protests, or engage in “serious and persistent violence.” Those placed in the ESHU would be locked into their cells for 17 hours each day. They would have limited access to the law library. Their mail could be read without notifying either them or the sender. They may not be allowed contact visits with family and loved ones. But, in order to move forward with the new unit, the DOC needed the authorization of the Board of Correction.

Activists, including many in the Jails Action Coalition, were horrified. With only one month before the sole public hearing about the unit and two months until the deciding vote, they worked to circulate news about the proposed unit. They urged people to submit written comments to the board opposing the new unit. They urged people to attend and speak at the upcoming hearing. Their outreach was successful. On December 19, 2014, not only had they lined up to attend and signed up to speak at the hearing, but so had many other people who had been incarcerated, worked at or had loved ones in Rikers. At the same time, however, correctional officers were also mobilized, along with their union, including union president Norman Seabrook, who has gone from being called a “roadblock to reform” to an “enemy of reform” by theNew York Times. Uniformed correctional officers took up nearly a quarter of the seating, which prevented people arriving after 9 a.m. from being allowed to enter the auditorium.

The hearing lasted for over six-and-a-half hours with 104 people from both sides signed up to testify, many of whom condemned the proposal. After the hearing, members of the Jails Action Coalition met with the three newest members of the board individually to talk with them about the proposed rule and the effects of solitary confinement.

Four days before its January 13 hearing, the board published an amended version of the rule it was considering. The rule would authorize the creation of the ESHU, while also placing limitations around punitive segregation, a form of solitary confinement used to punish people who broke jail rules.

Currently, only 16- and 17-year-olds are separated from other age groups. People ages 18 and over are housed in the adult units at Rikers. The new rule excludes people ages 18 to 21 from solitary unless they have committed a Grade One infraction. But these infractions range from serious actions such as assault, escape, and rape to minor acts such as protesting, possession of tobacco or money, and spitting. Those who have serious mental health or physical disabilities are also excluded. Clinicians from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decide what constitutes a serious mental health or physical disability warranting exclusion from the ESHU. The rule also states that, if a person is excluded because of their age or health, they cannot be placed in punitive segregation for the same rule violation once their age or health status has changed.

In addition, the rule now places a time limit on the amount of time that can be spent in punitive segregation. Under the old system, people could spend months, if not years, in punitive segregation. Now, the department can only place a person in punitive segregation for up to 30 consecutive days. If the segregation sentence exceeds 30 days, the person is given a seven-day break before being sent back to segregation. In addition, the rule sets a limit of 60 days in punitive segregation within a six-month time period unless a person is persistently violent. If a longer time in segregation is sought, the chief of department must approve the extension. The DOC is required to notify both the Board of Correction and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and explain the security concerns. Daily mental health rounds must be provided for those in segregation for more than 60 days during a six-month period. Finally, it eliminates the practice of “owed time” in which a person who had been released from Rikers before finishing his time in segregation is immediately placed in solitary if he is ever re-arrested and re-incarcerated there.

The hearing on January 13 was not as crowded as the previous one. Less than 50 uniformed corrections officers sat in the back rows while advocates filled the front. The auditorium remained a quarter empty but everyone listened intently.

Before the board voted on the proposed rule, Bryanne Hamill, a former family court judge and a commissioner of the Board of Correction, added amendments limiting criteria for ESHU placement and setting a sentencing maximum of 30 days for any one charge. She also added an amendment excluding 18 to 21-year-olds from both the ESHU and punitive segregation beginning on January 1, 2016, so long as the DOC has the resources for alternative programs.

“The process [for this rulemaking] has not been very good,” stated Robert Cohen, another commissioner on the Board of Correction. Calling the rule “ill-conceived and flawed,” he said, “I do not believe the ESH Unit will decrease violence on Rikers Island. The only way we can decrease violence is to recognize that violence is caused by Rikers Island.”

“I do not support locking in ESH inmates for 17 hours a day,” Hamill stated, pointing out that, under the rule, those who participate in protests and other disturbances can be sent to the ESHU.

She also noted that reforming existing practices of solitary confinement seemed to be “held hostage” by the ESHU proposal. And so, the motion to adopt the rules, as amended by Judge Hamill, was unanimously approved.

Although he got the unit he was advocating for, Norman Seabrook seemed infuriated by the accompanying limitations, lambasting the board during the public comments section. He charged them with listening more to the Jails Action Coalition than to the men and women who work at Rikers Island. “Shame on you for allowing yourselves to be influenced by a small group of people — 90 percent of whom have never been incarcerated and never been a corrections officer.” He charged that the board, by limiting time in segregation, is jeopardizing the safety of both jail staff and those they guard, threatening to sue the board any time an officer is assaulted because of the new limitations. On that note, he walked out of the auditorium, taking with him a small cadre of non-uniformed people from the DOC.

Had he stayed, he would have heard the testimony of Evie Litwok, a member of the Jails Action Coalition who has been incarcerated and spent seven weeks in solitary confinement. Litwok also lambasted the board, but for a different reason: “You had an atrocious proposal,” she said. “You were able to tack on some amendments in one month. But you spent a year not passing minimum standards around punitive segregation.” Scott Paltrowitz, associate director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York, agreed. “This was an opportunity to create real alternatives to solitary confinement,” he said. “That opportunity wasn’t taken.”

But, advocates conceded after the meeting, there were some wins. Hearings for placement in punitive segregation and the ESHU now allow the accused to call witnesses, which had not been allowed previously. The initial proposal for the ESHU did not allow for exclusions of people with mental health concerns. The limit to 30 consecutive days and maximum of 60 days was, in the words of Johnny Perez who spent 60 days in segregation in Rikers as a teen, “the best news I’ve heard all day.”

Litwok, who had been part of the individual meetings with Board of Correction members, agrees. “I think Jails Action Coalition’s efforts made a dent. It allowed Hamill and Cohen, who were against the unit, to make the amendments [around solitary],” she said. The initial rule, she noted, excluded 16- and 17-year-olds from solitary and eliminated the practice of “owed time,” but did not contain any of the other limits included in the new rule.

“Obviously the exclusions for certain age groups is positive,” said Nick Malinowski, a social worker at Brooklyn Defender Services. “But we haven’t changed the paradigm that punishing people is going to change behavior.” The next step, he said, is ensuring that standards are enforced, a task where the board has sometimes faltered.

“Although [limitations on solitary] are a step in the right direction, we want to see more,” said Perez, who is now on the Strategic Adolescent Advisory Board to recommend further changes in dealing with teens at Rikers. “We want to see more out-of-cell time than seven hours a day. We want to see the elimination of solitary confinement for those under 25 and more humane treatment of those in solitary.” Noting that the rule includes a sunset provision — which means that after 18 months, the board will evaluate the new unit’s effectiveness and decide whether to authorize its continuation — he said, “We’ll be back then. And we’ll continue to fight for the rights of those inside.”


Controversy Erupts at Public Meeting on New Rikers Island Isolation Units

December 22, 2014 by  2 Comments
Dakem Roberts, a survivor of solitary confinement on Rikers Island, speaks at a press conference sponsored by the Jails Action Coalition. Photo provided by JAC.

Dakem Roberts, a survivor of solitary confinement on Rikers Island, speaks at a press conference sponsored by the Jails Action Coalition. Photo provided by JAC.

On Friday, December 19th, hundreds packed into the audience at a meeting of the New York City Board of Correction (BOC), the body that oversees New York City’s jail system. At issue was the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island—specifically, whether to move forward with a new, highly-restrictive Enhanced Supervision Housing unit (ESHU). The proposed ESHU, at an estimated cost of $14.8 million, will not replace punitive segregation units on the island jail; instead, it will serve as an additional form of segregation.

According to the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), the ESHU will curb the dramatic increase in serious violence at Rikers by separating 250 who are considered violent or security threats – including gang leaders and those who have instigated or participated in a riot while in custody – from the general population. Those in the ESHU would spend 17 hours a day locked into their cells.

But for advocates, who have been working for years to reform what they see as the torturous practice of solitary confinement on Rikers, the new units represent a significant step backwards. Many expressed disappointment with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new Correction Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who came to New York City from Maine with a reputation as a reformer.

The New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), which works to promote human rights in the city’s jails, organized a press conference on December 10th to publicize the proposed amendments and air their concerns. Referring to the weakened criteria for placement in punitive segregation, Skylar Albertson of the Bronx Defenders said, “The ineffectual hearing process and overbroad criteria for ESHU will allow corrections officers to sentence an incarcerated person to isolation at any time, for any reason and without oversight.”

Susan Goodwillie of the Urban Justice Center said that the ESHU would “perpetuate the same pattern of punitive segregation that has fostered the very violence that they are seeking to change.”

Solitary Confinement in New York’s Jails

In April 2013, JAC petitioned the NYC Board of Correction to amend the Board’s Minimum Standards regarding the NYC Department of Correction’s (DOC) use of solitary confinement in New York’s jails. Solitary confinement (“punitive segregation”) is the practice of locking people in isolated, windowless cells without human contact for 22-24 hours a day. According to the DOC, New York City has 1,215 units in punitive segregation, 990 of which are on Rikers Island. The island holds people awaiting trial who cannot afford bail as well as those serving sentences of one year or less.

People in punitive segregation are denied most of the privileges allowed in the jail, including phone calls and family visits, rehabilitative or educational programming, and access to personal property. Members of JAC advocate for stricter minimum standards governing the use of punitive segregation, pushing for limits to the number of days one can spend in solitary confinement, improvements to due process for people at risk of or sentenced to punitive segregation, and a ban on the use of solitary confinement for youth under the age of 25 and people with mental illness.

Last year, following the appearance of two scathing reports, the Board of Correction voted to make new rules governing solitary confinement in the city’s jail system. These rules have yet to appear.

Those on both sides of the solitary confinement debate agree that violence has plagued Rikers in recent years, but sharply diverge on both the causes of this violence and the appropriate responses to it.

 In 2011, the Legal Aid Society and two private law firms filed Nunez v. the City of New York, a class-action lawsuit, to end the “unnecessary and excessive force inflicted upon inmates” by staff in all of the city’s jails. In August 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report condemning the “deep-seated culture of violence” by staff against adolescents housed at Rikers Island. On Thursday, December 18, the day before the Board of Correction hearing, the Justice Department announced that it planned to join the Nunez suit.

The Department of Corrections contends that the ESHU will address violence by removing those deemed most violent from general population and confining them to one housing unit. On the other hand, JAC and other advocates argue that much of the violence takes place at the hands of staff, and that the ESHU is unduly harsh and punitive rather than therapeutic.

Testimony Defends and Attacks New Segregation Units

The BOC meeting was held at an auditorium at the headquarters of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But Dr. Robert Cohen, a commissioner on the Board of Correction, noted that the City of New York had not allowed representatives of the Department of Health to attend or speak at the hearing. Instead, a bus full of corrections staff arrived shortly after eight am to fill the auditorium. Uniformed corrections officers filled more than a quarter of the available seats, forcing many to stand. DOC officials, including Norman Seabrook, the head of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, were also in attendance. Over 100 people signed up to testify.

The first to speak was DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “I have heard so many misconceptions about this unit,” he began. “I want to help correct these misconceptions.” During his testimony, he pointed out that, as of December 4th, DOC had eliminated punitive segregation for 16- and 17-year-olds. Instead, it has a transitional housing unit for adolescents. However, the unit lacks policy directives to govern its operations and, as Board of Corrections member Bryanne Hamill pointed out, youth are only allowed out (or “locked out” of their cells) for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. “That would still constitute a form of punitive segregation,” she noted.

Again and again, Ponte stated that the proposed ESHU is not a form of solitary confinement. His assertion was echoed by the other DOC officials who testified after him, including James Dzurenda, DOC’s first deputy commissioner, and Sidney Schwartzbaum, the president of the deputy wardens’ union. They also conjured worst-case scenarios to justify policies, such as the lack of contact visits, including visitors smuggling scalpels wrapped in electrical tape. Scott Temple, interim commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections, also testified, asserting that Connecticut’s experience “proves the effectiveness of this type of housing.”

But in a public comment to the Board of Correction, Linda Wilson, Executive Director of the Staten Island affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated, “The proposed ESHU restrictions are extreme, cumulative, and inflexible: reduction in out of cell time from 14 hours per day to 7 hours per day, inability to use the jail law library (replacing it with the in cell law library service that has proven inadequate in the jails’ punitive segregation housing areas), inability to attend congregate religious services outside the ESHU, deprivation of all contact visits regardless of risk, packages limited to approved vendors and a ‘permissible items list,’ strip searches and mechanical restraints every time the person leaves the housing unit, and opening and reading all incoming and outgoing non-privileged mail. Vulnerable populations such as individuals with mental illness, physical disability, physical injury, or young people (other than 16 and 17 year olds) are not excluded.”

Commissioner Ponte, in his testimony, placed the ratio of people on Rikers Island with mental illness at 33 percent. Alexandra Korry, chair of the New York Advisory Committee on the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, disagrees. During the Committee’s six-month investigation, which included visits to Rikers, they found that 48 percent of people on the island have mental health diagnoses.

Isolation further harms people with mental health issues, advocates argue. Wendy Brennan, the executive director of New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated her organization’s “unequivocal opposition to solitary confinement and the rule change to allow the ESHU.” She testified about how isolation exacerbates existing mental health issues and causes behavioral and mental health issues in those without preexisting conditions. “We believe that people with mental illness will be overrepresented in ESHU just like they are in punitive segregation.”

Dr. Frances Geteles has provided psychiatric evaluations for torture survivors. She noted that torture survivors and others who have experienced trauma need contact with family, religious groups and the larger community in order to heal, but that the ESHU deprives people of all three. In addition, she said, isolation supports an increase in depression, anger, loss of impulse control and aggression.

Those who had spent time behind bars—whether as incarcerated people or as staff—also spoke out against the proposed unit. Johnny Perez, now an advocate for the Safe Reentry program at the Urban Justice Center and a member of the Jails Action Coalition, spent 90 days in solitary at Rikers as a teenager. Nearly twenty years later, he still remembers the cold and the intense isolation of those 90 days. He said that, although policy states that a person can appeal their segregation sentence, appeal forms are often unavailable and, in segregation, people are not given blank paper or pens. Meals are widely spaced—dinner is served at 4 pm and breakfast not until 7 am. If the person is not awake, he is not given food. During those 90 days, Perez went from 180 to 155 pounds.

Until six months, ago, Dr. Daniel Selling was the director of mental health for the city’s jail system. He listed several programs that the DOC and the Department of Health created to address mental illness and other behavioral issues on the island. “Unfortunately, many of the programs we devised and implemented became perverted by the Department of Corrections,” he stated. The Intensive Treatment Unit, for instance, was originally created to have enhanced mental health treatment for those in punitive segregation. “Within a few years, it met its demise because of pressure from the union to stop coddling dangerous inmates,” he testified. Similarly, the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates went from 50 to 250 beds and quickly became violent. “This is the same thing that will happen to the ESH,” he warned, noting that the unit would increase the overall footprint of solitary confinement at Rikers by 250 beds.

Selling was not the only former Rikers staff whose experiences condemn the proposal. Mary Buser, the assistant chief of mental health at the punitive segregation unit from 1998 to 2000, also condemned the unit, noting that people with mental illness were often placed in segregation, where they reacted with head banging and other forms of self-harm.

Sister Marianne Defies, who worked as a chaplain for women at Rikers from 1984 to 2007, also denounced the horrors of solitary on the island. Segregation at Rose M. Singer, the women’s unit, consists of 50 cells where women are locked in 23 hours each day. They are allowed one hour outside their cell to exercise in an enclosed yard. She described the unit as either overwhelmingly loud as women yelled to each other through their cell doors or screamed from the isolation or as deathly quiet during count time. Countering the DOC’s assertion that segregation prevents violence, she noted that women are frequently sent to segregation for rules violations such as talking in the hallways or having unauthorized food or clothing in their cells. “I now realize I was a witness to torture,” she testified.

But these testimonies failed to move Norman Seabrook, the president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association and, according to the New York Times, a roadblock to reform. “No one talked about the inmate who slashes another inmate and gives him 90 stitches or who rapes another inmate,” Seabrook told the BOC, after sitting in the audience for five hours. “It is unacceptable for people to sit here and advocate for inmates who have raped and robbed others.”

Seabrook lambasted the Board, accusing them of not giving corrections officers the same consideration they do for the Jails Action Coalition, and invited them to hold a hearing with the correctional officers to hear their side. He agreed with the assessment that Rikers had a deep-seated culture of violence—but only on the side of those locked inside. After speaking, Seabrook shook hands with each and every one of the dozen corrections officers who remained in the auditorium. Then he exited, taking all of them with him and missing the hearing’s last testimonies, some of which directly refuted his assertion that the island’s culture of violence rests solely with those incarcerated.

Only four commissioners with the Board of Corrections remained as the afternoon wrapped up. In their closing statements, Dr. Robert Cohen and the Honorable Bryanne Hamill expressed disappointment with the Board’s actions (or lack thereof) regarding solitary. But it seems that these testimonies, and calls from advocates to give more serious—and lengthy—consideration to such a proposal, has not swayed the Board’s schedule. The Board will vote on the proposed rule to create the ESHU on January 13, 2015.




Demand Board of Correction End Torture in NYC Jails