Williams Advocates For His Bill To Ban Solitary Confinement In NYC At City Council Hearing

September 28th, 2022

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, prime sponsor of the landmark legislation to ban solitary confinement in New York City, spoke in support of both his bill and protecting the safety of people on both sides of the bars at the City Council hearing of the Committee on Criminal Justice Wednesday. He also pushed back against misinformation and misconceptions about the legislation. This hearing comes as the crisis on Rikers Island continues, with sixteen incarcerated people losing their lives already this year, including two reported within the last week.

Solitary confinement is defined by the United Nations as torture, yet it is still commonly used in jails in New York City. Intro 549 from the Public Advocate would finally create a concrete, enforceable ban on solitary in city jails - not just in name but in practice - while also allowing for separation and de-escalation when necessary for safety. The bill provides due process and parameters for separation and restrictive housing without enabling the deeply damaging effects of isolation.

Public Advocate Williams said of solitary, "It is cruel. It is inhumane. It can ruin people’s lives, and too many do not survive it. Many try to mask the practice of isolation with euphemistic names like punitive segregation, but there is no difference–it is solitary confinement. Prolonged isolation that looks like, feels like and acts like solitary confinement—is solitary confinement. Physical isolation coupled with the lack of meaningful social interaction causes or exacerbates trauma, as well as other mental health issues. Solitary confinement does not only impact the individual; entire communities mourn the losses of their parents, siblings, children, and friends... No one leaves solitary confinement whole."

Under this legislation, the DOC shall not place an incarcerated individual in a cell, other than at night for sleep, for more than eight hours in any 24-hour period, or during the day for more than two hours in any 24-hour period, unless such confinement is necessary to de-escalate immediate conflict that has caused injury or poses an immediate danger to a person’s safety. The bill is co-prime sponsored by Council Member Carlina Rivera and supported by Speaker Adrienne Adams and a veto-proof majority of Council Members.

Intro 549 has been widely misunderstood and mischaracterized. As the Public Advocate noted in his statement, "To be clear, this bill ends the harmful practices of solitary confinement, but does not ban separation when it is necessary to protect incarcerated individuals and staff. If an incident of violence occurs, staff will still be able to immediately separate a person while they begin the process of assigning them to restrictive housing, if necessary. While there will be new procedures in place to ensure that we are not isolating individuals, a person who poses a specific and imminent safety risk will not be immediately returned to the general population to await their hearing. Once again, DOC can separate these individuals prior to their due process hearing, but they can no longer hold people in prolonged isolation. This bill outlines a simple procedure: separate, deescalate, and investigate."

Prior to his prepared remarks, the Public Advocate addressed the controversy around the legislation, saying “To the corrections officers, I see you. I know that there is real harm being done to you. And there's real cause for concern, which is why you are here. I have heard of officers who have had heart attacks while on the job, officers who have committed suicide, I know that female officers who have been sexually assaulted on a regular basis, and while there’s misinformation being sent around about my bill, I know that the harm is real, and I want to make sure I lift that up. I think it’s important to remember that on both sides of those bars, most of those folks look like me - primarily Black and Brown people, and they generally come from the same communities. With just a few differences of circumstances, their roles could be reversed. It’s important to point out because I know the job is tough, and I know, I don’t work there on a regular basis, and I understand that there has to be accountability. I want it always, when an officer harms someone who is incarcerated, and when someone incarcerated harms an officer."

He continued, "There has to be accountability and a way to keep people safe, but I want to be clear. That cannot be based in torture, and that is all that this bill is saying. We have to find a way where we’re producing safety for everyone who’s on that island, an island that is not safe, to be produced. But I want you to know that I see you, and I hear you, and I know that the pain is very real. I also want to make sure it’s clear that this bill will not solve the problem on Rikers Island. I want to be clear about that. It is dealing with one particular issue that is also very real, and that is the torture of people that we have to prevent. We have to make sure that we’re humanizing everyone. When we dehumanize people, bad things happen. I don’t want to dehumanize our corrections officers. I also don’t want to dehumanize people who are accused of a crime. Our society is going to be based on how much we do or don’t dehumanize people, even people who are accused of committing crimes."

The Public Advocate's comments as prepared are below.

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON CRIMINAL JUSTICE

SEPTEMBER 28, 2022

Good morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Rivera and the members of the Committee on Criminal Justice for holding this incredibly important hearing.

I want to begin by calling solitary confinement what it is: torture. It is cruel. It is inhumane. It can ruin people’s lives, and too many do not survive it. Many try to mask the practice of isolation with euphemistic names like punitive segregation, but there is no difference–it is solitary confinement. Prolonged isolation that looks like, feels like and acts like solitary confinement—is solitary confinement. Physical isolation coupled with the lack of meaningful social interaction causes or exacerbates trauma, as well as other mental health issues. Solitary confinement does not only impact the individual; entire communities mourn the losses of their parents, siblings, children, and friends. We have already lost sixteen people in the jail on Rikers Island so far this year, and I am committed to doing everything in my power to end this crisis.

People who experience isolation in jails and prisons suffer socially, mentally, emotionally, and financially, both while incarcerated and after release. No one leaves solitary confinement whole. They struggle with the lasting effects of trauma and are disproportionately more likely to die by suicide or homicide. They are also at increased risk for homelessness and substance use: a 2019 North Carolina study found that survivors of solitary confinement were 127 times more likely to die from an opioid overdose within two weeks of their release.

That is why I have introduced Intro 0549-2022, which would ban the use of solitary confinement in city jails as implemented by Department of Correction (DOC), as well as provide individuals in DOC custody due process protections following an incident and prior to being placed in restrictive housing or continued use of restraints. I want to express my gratitude to Speaker Adrienne Adams and my colleagues in the City Council for sponsoring this bill. I urge Mayor Eric Adams to reevaluate his position on solitary confinement. Ending this practice in our jails is not “silly,” as he has expressed; it is life-saving, it is urgently needed, and it is long overdue.

I acknowledge that there are situations in which separation from the general population is necessary to protect the safety of those incarcerated and staff. I have worked closely with advocates to design a bill that addresses safety concerns while ending the harmful practice of solitary confinement and allows for necessary separation. We need to take care to separate and not resort to prolonged isolation, a distinction that my bill outlines.

Under this legislation, the DOC shall not place an incarcerated individual in a cell, other than at night for sleep, for more than eight hours in any 24-hour period, or during the day for more than two hours in any 24-hour period, unless such confinement is necessary to de-escalate immediate conflict that has caused injury or poses an immediate danger to a person’s safety. In this situation, a person may not be isolated for longer than is necessary to de-escalate the conflict, not longer than four hours immediately following the conflict.

In addition, my bill provides due-process safeguards for incarcerated individuals. To place a person in the confinement permitted by this law, there must be a hearing process, and the incarcerated person and their legal team must be notified. A multidisciplinary team must meaningfully review restrictive housing placements within fifteen days.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association would have you believe that this bill will endanger both incarcerated individuals and correction officers. Union officials are misinterpreting the legislation because they either do not understand it or they do not want to understand it. They have also claimed that my office never reached out to them to discuss the language in this bill, which is untrue. My staff has been engaged with union representatives for months regarding solitary confinement and other issues related to the humanitarian crisis on Rikers Island. The ideas in this bill had been discussed at length with some points of agreement. Attempts to gather grassroots advocates and other law enforcement stakeholders in one room to better understand the trauma of solitary confinement and explore a better solution together were met with disinterest. However, I believe union representatives would agree that placing someone in solitary confinement as a form of correction is ineffective and irreparably damaging to the individual detained.

To be clear, this bill ends the harmful practices of solitary confinement, but does not ban separation when it is necessary to protect incarcerated individuals and staff. If an incident of violence occurs, staff will still be able to immediately separate a person while they begin the process of assigning them to restrictive housing, if necessary. While there will be new procedures in place to ensure that we are not isolating individuals, a person who poses a specific and imminent safety risk will not be immediately returned to the general population to await their hearing. Once again, DOC can separate these individuals prior to their due process hearing, but they can no longer hold people in prolonged isolation. This bill outlines a simple procedure: separate, deescalate, and investigate. 

This bill will not be an instant solution for the increased violence, self-harm, and suicides taking place on Rikers Island. We still need to decarcerate now. We still need district attorneys to drop charges in cases where there is no evidence. We need judges to stop remanding individuals when it is not needed. We need more proactive alternatives for youth. And it would be inhumane if we did not provide people with suitable healthcare in settings that maintain an individual's dignity. This bill will succeed in triggering the transformation of the DOC into an institution that will provide adequate, humane public health resources to individuals detained while awaiting trial. It will humanize all of the actors involved and interrupt an endless chain of violence by forcing our city to rightfully invest resources in therapeutic solutions for incarcerated people. This bill will make NYC safer for everyone. That is why it currently has a veto-proof majority, including the support of Speaker Adams. The bill does not introduce new or experimental ideas, but further amplifies the current NYC Board of Corrections minimum standards and decades of academic research; it is long overdue and ready to pass today. 

I understand that corrections officers and administrators have concerns about the implementation of this bill, particularly around staffing. I agree that staffing is a problem and DOC must work harder to bring officers back to work. Our jails would have more staff on a daily basis if DOC would address the excessive use of sick leave. I would also like to note that while DOC has been vocal about being dangerously understaffed, it was still able to bring busloads of officers to this hearing. NYC actually has the highest ratio of staff to incarcerated people of any city in the country. In fact, Rikers has a higher staffing ratio than it has in decades past, even factoring in sick days and vacation days. Ending solitary is actually beneficial for officers’ physical and mental well-being: according to the Vera Institute of Justice, corrections staff often report experiencing significantly lower stress levels and increased feelings of safety after leaving solitary to work in less restrictive units, or when working in solitary units that have implemented substantial reforms. 

Like many things we once thought kept us safe, solitary confinement increases problems and violence both inside our jails and outside in the community. It is our obligation to keep New Yorkers safe on both sides of the bars, and we must continue to move away from outdated practices that just create more harm. Solitary confinement as implemented by the DOC is at odds with the ultimate goal of reform and rehabilitation, and falls under the definition of torture by the United Nations. 

As lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson once wrote, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.” I look forward to working with all of you in creating a more safe and just city.

Thank you.

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