NYC bill that would ban solitary confinement in jails sparks heated debate ahead of City Council hearing


Debate over banning solitary confinement in city jails is ramping up ahead of a City Council hearing Friday where lawmakers will review a bill that could virtually eliminate the practice.

The proposed legislation would prohibit punitive segregation — commonly referred to as solitary confinement — in most cases unless it’s deemed temporarily necessary to deescalate a conflict, according to language of a bill that will be introduced Friday by City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Queens).

For criminal justice advocates, the bill does not go nearly far enough to eradicate the practice that presently permits up to 20 hours a day lock-in for people accused of committing acts of violence, including arson and assaults on a staff member or another person in custody.

For correction officers, the legislation would leave them without a vital tool to keep themselves from harm.

“I was in a housing area … when an inmate … crept up behind me, slammed me up against a wall, and viciously sexually assaulted me, grabbed my vagina, my breast area, and other body parts. Someone like him needed to be in punitive segregation,” said a Rikers Island correction officer of the May 16 attack at Otis Bantum Correctional Center.

The officer — whose name is being withheld due to the nature of the incident — is one of several officers who is expected to testify before Council members Friday.

“[The Council members] don’t work in our facilities. Are they going to take responsibility when myself and other officers get hurt?” she said. “When these guys violate you, they are turning your entire life upside down. … If I can’t isolate someone like this, I’m possibly forced to go through the same thing again.”

The bill comes six months after Mayor de Blasio vowed to end the controversial practice June 29, and three months after the Mayor’s Management Report revealed a 284% increase in the rate of serious injuries in city jails.

Those pushing for reform point to a number of alternatives to punitive segregation outlined in a blueprint put out by the HALTSolitary Campaign, which notes that “limiting out-of-cell time does not in any way contribute to greater safety or reductions in violence.”

“It is [a] positive [thing that] the City Council is acting where the mayor and Board of Correction have failed to for years,” said Anisah Sabur, a member of the campaign who was once held in solitary confinement.

“But for this legislation to actually be effective at ending solitary, there should be no carveouts,” she continued. “The basic minimum standards in the city jails of 14 hours out-of-cell per day with access to meaningful human engagement and programming should apply to everyone.”

Yet Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio said the jails will be much worse off if the legislation passes.

“Taking this away is going to get more people hurt,” Boscio said. “There’s this false narrative out there where people are in a hole and we just feed them bread and water with no window. That’s not the case.”

“They say we’re torturing inmates,” he added. “But is it not a form of torture to cut somebody and leave them scarred for the rest of their lives?”