Many New Yorkers now know what it was like to be alone for long periods of time while quarantining during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who have lived through solitary confinement affirmed that it is nothing compared to the hell of Rikers Island’s isolation.
Layleen Polanco, Kalief Browder and Benjamin van Zandt — all victims of the harsh reality behind solitary confinement and yet, this form of punishment still exists.
“When will it end,” families of incarcerated individuals and those who have served time themselves cried out at a rally in the shadow of City Hall on Nov. 23, organized by #HALTsolitary and Jails Action Coalition. Relatives shared the constant fear in which they live, terrified for their loved ones locked away in an antiquated system that utilizes isolation as a disciplinary model.
For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio swore on the names of several individuals who’ve perished in solitary confinement, including Polanco — a transgender woman who died while in custody — vowing to end this inhuman form of punishment; however, with the implementation of the Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS), advocates continue to state that it’s the same practice, but under another name.
“The mayor made a promise; he invoked my sister’s name in doing so! He promised that he would end solitary confinement and all he did was switch the name, something that’s been going on way before our time. Our ancestors fought this fight, and all they ever did was change the name with no real change behind it. My sister deserves to be here today,” said Melania Brown, sister of Layleen Polanco, “It is time that the mayor truly end solitary confinement.”
Brown shared that her family has not celebrated Thanksgiving nor put up a Christmas tree since the passing of their Polanco.
“No one should be mourning on Christmas. For my sister I will continue to show up,” Brown said.
Although the holidays are in sight, those who swore to fight say they will continue for as long as it takes. Demanding that solitary confinement end and the “decarceration” of city jails just one hour before the New York City Council hosted it’s hybrid Stated Meeting inside Tuesday, protesters brandished signs and called out legislators.
“Does the mayor know how many have died in solitary this year? Do you New Yorkers know how many have died in solitary this year?” Minister Dr. Victoria Phillips cried out at the rally, “Fourteen people have died in jail this year. Not all of them were solitary but were in inhumane conditions, treated barbarically and denied their basic rights.”
Solitary confinement creates a forced isolation of one individual, which could be for a select amount of time (hours, days, weeks, months and even years), away from the general incarcerated population. For decades expert sources like the Brennan Center for Justice have found this form of punishment to be counterproductive, showing in no way that it has led to a decrease in prison violence. In fact, many human rights advocates have found this extreme isolation to cause/exacerbate mental issues.
“The majority of people who end up in solitary confinement, unfortunately, have a mental health condition. So who are we arresting? Who are we putting in our jails? If not our vulnerable population from our community,” Phillips said.
While in June 2021, the Humane Alternatives to Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) was passed, it limits the abuses behind this form of punishment (with a promise of at least 10 hours a day out of cell time and seven hours of meaningful engagement). Activists are calling for an end to the practice and the overall decarceration of individuals from city jails, many of whom at the rally claim are simply awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime yet.
Assemblymember Emily Gallagher was one of many elected officials who witnessed the heinous conditions on Rikers Island, and while she shared it brought about much needed media attention, it has not prompted the changes she has deemed necessary.
“I am here to renew my commitment to you all and remind you that I have not forgotten what I saw at Rikers Island, and I am continuing to fight behind the scenes and I am going to go back to Rikers when they least expect it to bring to light what is going on,” Assemblymember Gallagher said.
amNewYork reached out to the mayor’s office for comment and is awaiting a response.