COBA: Ending Solitary Invites Violence in Jails

Mark Toor | The Chief-Leader

Mayor De Blasio: Years ahead of everyone else.

The de Blasio administration’s announcement Oct. 11 that inmates age 21 and under were no longer subject to solitary confinement was blasted by the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, whose president said that the most violent population on Rikers Island now believes it has a blank check to assault other inmates and staff members.

“They know nothing is going to happen to them,” COBA President Elias Husamudeen said in an interview with THE CHIEF-LEADER. “Now there are no repercussions.” He said that ending punitive segregation—Rikers-speak for solitary—is an invitation for inmates to declare “open season” on correction officers.

‘Don’t Overuse, But Need It’

He said solitary needs to be restored for the younger inmates. “You can’t overuse it,” he warned. “Don’t use it for an inmate who refused to clean up his cell. But when an inmate picks up a weapon and cuts the face of another inmate, who needs 20 or 100 stitches—use it.”

In phasing it out for younger inmates, Mayor de Blasio and his Correction Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, cited psychological problems caused by solitary confinement, which are most severe in younger people.

The Department of Correction ended punitive segregation for 16- and 17-year-olds in December 2014 and for 18-year-olds in June of this year. The Mayor’s announcement did not mention that the city had asked the city Board of Correction, which oversees DOC, for four extensions on the deadline for 19-to-21-year-olds.

DOC officials said in July that violence in the jails surged in June as they moved dozens of 18-year-old inmates out of solitary. “As we started to add more problematic inmates into that population, it started to disrupt everything,” Mr. Ponte told the board at that time. The deadline set by the board for ending solitary confinement for inmates 21 and under was Oct. 11, the same date as the Mayor’s announcement.

‘Need Path Toward Rehab’

“Today’s announcement shows that New York City is leading the nation down a new path toward rehabilitation and safety,” Mr. de Blasio said. “Commissioner Ponte has established viable options for managing and disciplining young inmates that can bring about better outcomes while reducing violence—and has done so years ahead of other jurisdictions.”

But Mr. Husamudeen said violence has actually risen. He quoted from the Mayor’s Management Report issued last month: “Compared to the same time last year, the number of slashings and stabbings increased by 66 percent, from 32 to 53 incidents. In addition, inmate-on-inmate fights rose by 25 percent, leading to a 40-percent increase in the overall rate of violent incidents per 1,000 [inmates in the average daily population], from 34.5 to 48.2 per 1,000 ADP. These incidents resulted in an 8-percent increase in serious injuries from inmate-on-inmate altercations, up to 108 from 100 last year.”

Further, he said in a press release, “while the administration favors the cherry-picking approach of only examining a couple facilities where assaults on staff declined slightly, the reality is that well over 600 correction officers were assaulted just within the last year. That is a staggering number and certainly not a measurement that reflects crime is down by any measure in our jails.”

“For them to say the crime is down in New York City—the last time I checked, Ri­kers Island was part of New York City,” he said in the interview.

‘Like Taking Cop’s Gun’

More than 600 correction officers have been assaulted since January, he said. “We’re asking for a fighting chance. Taking [solitary] away from us is like taking a cop’s gun away and telling him to fight crime.”

The two unions representing jail supervisors, the Correction Captains Association and the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, have agreed that exempting younger inmates from solitary removes an important tool for controlling violence.

Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Ponte said DOC has developed housing units for problematic inmates that are more restrictive than general population but less so than solitary, in which prisoners are allowed out of their cells for an hour a day.

Each housing option—Second Chance, Transitional Restorative Unit and Secure—provides “a progressively therapeutic and structured approach” for encouraging good behavior, with additional staff members as well as more counseling, educational and recreational programs, they said in the announcement.

‘Commit Third of Violence’

“Today, the department announced that it is working to adapt its Enhanced Supervision Housing to meet the needs of 18-21-year-olds. Transferring the last few young adults into ESH officially ends punitive segregation for the department,” according to the announcement, which added, “Young adults ages 18-21 comprise about 10-12 percent of the jail population but commit about a third of the violence in the city’s jails.”

Mr. Husamudeen predicted that with no concern about solitary, “this small population will end up committing more than half of the violence in the jails by next year.” The new units, he said, “are a substitute for punitive segregation. Guess where the violence is coming from.”

The COBA president said the real “tale of two cities”—a catchphrase Mr. de Blasio used in his 2013 campaign—had to do with law enforcement. “When you listen to the Mayor and the city speak, it almost doesn’t matter what the subject matter is, he’s always talking about the NYPD,” Mr. Husamudeen said.

Police officers are given training and equipment for dealing with the mentally ill, he said, while correction officers are given barely 16 hours of training in an academy housed in rented space in a mall in Queens. Further, he said, 42 percent of inmates have mental-health diagnoses.

Cites Inmates’ Taunt

Younger inmates say, “There isn’t anything you can do to me if I attack you,” he said. “Can you imagine telling that to police officers in the street?…Resources go to the FDNY, the Board of Ed, the NYPD—everything except the jail system.

“Unless the administration adopts one uniform strategy to fighting crime on the street and behind bars, there can be no victory for public safety in the nation’s largest city,” he said in the press release.

COBA recently sent letters to city officials proposing what Mr. Husamudeen called two common-sense policy changes for the jails.

In an Oct. 3 letter to Elizabeth Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, Mr. Husamudeen proposed moving inmates who commit repeated crimes at Rikers to a jurisdiction where solitary confinement is permitted.

In a Sept. 29 letter to Herminia Palacio, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, he recommended moving repeat offenders with mental-health issues to mental hospitals.

As of last week, he said, he had received no response to either letter.