NYC Council To Vote On Public Advocate’s Landmark Bill To Ban Solitary Confinement

December 20th, 2023

Press Release

NEW YORK: The New York City Council will vote on a bill to ban solitary confinement today, legislation from Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams to prohibit the isolating practice in city jails. This bill marks the most comprehensive and concrete legislative effort to end the practice of solitary, which the United Nations defines as torture, on a citywide level.

“Solitary confinement is inhumane, and its presence in our city is indefensible,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams on the bill. “Committing an infraction in jail can cause you to lose privileges, not basic human rights. People in solitary are isolated, denied human contact and connection, denied support, and come out of these deplorable conditions worse than when they went in – and some don’t come out at all. Banning solitary – not just in name, but in practice – is good for public safety. This bill will make our jails and our city safer, and correct an immoral injustice that has no place in New York. I thank the Speaker and City Council for their support of this bill, and thank the advocates and impacted people and families who have turned pain into purpose and brought us to this historic moment.”

While city officials have claimed that solitary confinement is not being utilized, the practice has continued on Rikers Island in all but name. Extended, unchecked periods of isolation have been found to cause immense damage to the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people subjected to it, and have not been found to be either a deterrent against violent infractions or a solution to prevent future harm. To the contrary, time spent in solitary is linked to increased violence in jails and increased rates of recidivism.

Intro 549-A, co-prime sponsored by Council Members Rivera, Cabán, Hudson, Riley, Won, and Restler, will end this de facto solitary confinement by putting in place enforceable standards that uphold both the due process rights and well-being of incarcerated people, closing loopholes and focusing on rehabilitation. It allows for temporary separation and de-escalation of conflict for safety purposes in specific instances, while preventing the torture of extended isolation. Crucially, it sets minimum standards for what constitutes a cell and out-of-cell time, and enshrines other guidelines from the Board of Correction into law to ensure that the Department of Correction cannot circumvent these standards.

Under Intro 549-A, a person can be placed in “de-escalation confinement” to address an immediate issue, then if necessary, to an alternative unit that still permits a level of separation without the harm of isolation. It applies the decades-old standard of 14 hours out-of-cell time to all people in jail, including in alternative units. It provides legal assurance that even in alternative units, incarcerated people will have a level of interaction with others, and ensures that due process is employed throughout any period of separation. The bill further mandates that people in alternative units will receive programming designed to prevent future harmful behaviors

“There has been a long campaign of misinformation about solitary in New York City, and about the components and impact of this bill, but the reality is that no matter what terminology you use, people are facing the cruel and unusual punishment of isolation, and carrying the damage of that torture for the rest of their lives. This is happening in our city, and we cannot look away,” continued Public Advocate Williams. “Corrections officers face real difficulties and challenges. Those challenges, though, are not and will not be caused by a bill being voted on today. This bill simply provides an enforceable and effective way to do what we should already have been doing to uphold minimum standards of safety and decency on Rikers. Opponents of banning solitary are trying to uphold a status quo of crisis and inhumanity, and we cannot allow that in our city.”

“For decades, solitary confinement has been used as a disciplinary tool in our jail system, and the reality is this: no matter what you call it, solitary confinement is horrific, and inhumane. Human rights experts have declared that solitary confinement is torture," said Council Member Carlina Rivera, Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice. “As Chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, passing Int. 549 has been one of my top priorities, and I’m proud to support this legislation. We must strive for a criminal legal system that leads the nation in reforms rather than accepting a status quo where our neighbors are locked away in abusive and dangerous conditions.”

In addition to the harm that has gone unseen, the isolated voices unheard, there have been several high profile tragedies on Rikers in recent years. In 2015, after spending years in solitary, 22 year-old Kalief Browder took his own life. In 2021, Brandon Rodriguez died by suicide in solitary, and in 2019, Layleen Polanco lost her life when she did not receive adequate medical treatment while in solitary. Critically, this bill will go beyond the walls of Rikers to all jails in the city, and beyond the complex’s impending closure.

As New York City votes on the Public Advocate’s bill today, there is growing momentum for federal action on the practice. Last week, the entire Democratic House delegation from New York City urged passage of Intro 549-A, and a bill to enact a national ban was introduced in the House this summer. Polling shows that a majority of Americans support the measures to ban solitary which are included in the Public Advocate’s legislation.

The bill from the Public Advocate is one of five being voted on today, which also include legislation to report on law enforcement stops, to streamline oversight access to police body camera footage, and to provide veterans with information about city services available to them.


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