Seven people incarcerated on Rikers Island were being held in conditions that resembled solitary confinement, according to city politicians who made a surprise visit to the beleaguered lockup Monday morning.
The detainees were confined to a tiny two-part cell for almost the entire day and were only let out into an adjoining small and dark compartment, according to Comptroller Brad Lander, who toured the jail complex with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and the City Council’s Criminal Justice committee chairperson Carlina Rivera.
“We did at the end see seven individuals who were in involuntary protective custody, and, boy, that looks like what you imagine when you think of as solitary,” Lander told reporters during a press conference outside the Queens entrance to Rikers after their visit on Aug. 29.
“What counts as your getting out of your cell is that you go into this other little area, but they’re each as dark as night,” the comptroller added. “You have nobody else nearby and the folks we talked to were in those units 22 or 23 hours of the day.”
Yet Mayor Eric Adams fired back at their criticism Monday afternoon, saying that incarcerated people who are violent in jail should be separated from others behind bars.
“If you are in jail and you commit a predatory crime on a staffer, a civilian, or another inmate, I want them to tell us what we should do with them, because I don’t know what they want us to do with them,” Adams said during an unrelated press conference at City Hall.
“I think people who commit violent crimes should be removed from society, and [if] they commit violent crimes while they are removed from society, they need to go somewhere so they don’t hurt people again,” hizzoner added.
‘Spirit’ of solitary law broken?
Lander, the city’s fiscal watchdog, said the conditions went against the “spirit” of a 2021 state law that sought to limit solitary, known as the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, adding that Department of Corrections staff didn’t have a clear explanation why they moved the seven people into the more restrictive custody.
“There was fuzziness to us at least about what lands you in involuntary protective custody, but to my mind it is at least a violation in spirit [of the HALT law],” Lander said.
Staff told the pols they put the detainees into the more restrictive units “preemptively” when they came into the corrections complex in case they were a danger to other people incarcerated on the island, but one of the detainees claimed to have been moved from another jail facility, according to the public advocate.
“We spoke to at least one person that said they were housed in another facility, which means they were in that facility and they came here, which sounds like it was being used for the same reason that it was before,” Williams said.
The public advocate introduced a bill in June at the city level to ban solitary confinement and provide people in custody due process before jail personnel put them in more restrictive quarters.
The biggest concern they heard from people in the slammer was not being able to get medicine, according to Williams.
The pols noted that overall, the situation at the jails had improved from a previous visit last year.
“Where we were in September was, I don’t know how you could have gotten any worse, so you probably can only go up,” Williams said. “We are glad to see that moving up.”
The punishment model former Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented to replace solitary, dubbed Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS), was showing results, with other detainees getting seven to 10 hours of time out of their cells each day with programs like art therapy and puzzles, the pols said.
“For that significant set of people, it looks like there’s meaningful compliance,” Lander said.
A DOC spokesperson said the agency was following the state law, adding that the people in stricter confinement are allowed to talk to other people for 14 hours a day.
“We appreciate our elected officials recognizing the city’s progress in improving our jails. We still have much work to do, and we remain committed to implementing reform through our Action Plan and working with the Federal Monitor,” said Jason Kersten in a statement.