‘The mayor lied to us’: Criminal justice activists in NYC demand new way to end solitary confinement

DSC04442 copy-2 copy
Candie, a solitary survivor and member of the Jails Action Coalition, joined elected officials and advocates in a rally outside of City Hall to end solitary confinement on August 3.
Photo by Dean Moses

Elected officials and civil rights advocates called Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to end solitary confinement on Tuesday “toothless.”

On Aug. 3, just two days after politicians and civil rights advocates sent a letter to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson calling for a meaningful end to solitary confinement, they once again banded together at City Hall to demand Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Johnson put a stop to the HALT Act violations and truly ban what many feel is an inhumane procedure.

In June, the New York City Board of Corrections (BOC) voted to end solitary confinement in City’s jails, implementing a new alternative disciplinary model, the Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS).

After seeing photographs of the proposed model through a BOC FOIL request and an unannounced visit elected officials made to Rikers Island, advocates are deeming this form of discipline solitary confinement by another name. 

Following two letters released by over 74 lawmakers and community members, advocates are calling out the mayor and New York City Council, stating that RMAS violates HALT by allowing the Department of Corrections to lock individuals in a cell alone 23 hours a day, indefinitely.

Council member Carlina Rivera calls Mayor de Blasio’s pledge to end solitary confinement “toothless.” Photo by Dean Moses

 “This is an issue around our humanity, around how we treat people,” Council member Carlina Rivera said, adding, “We already know solitary confinement is cruel, it is inhumane and reminds us of an ugly scar on our city and our city’s history until this very day, until this very moment. Months ago, when we heard the mayor speak out loud the name of Layleen Polanco, talking about the heart-breaking preventive death and what we now know was a toothless pledge to end solitary confinement. I always say, if you are going to speak somebody’s name you have to put some honor on it. We are not seeing that right now and what we’ve heard and what has followed is basically solitary by another name.”

On June 7, 2019, Layleen Polanco was a 27-year-old Afro-Latina transgender woman who died at Rikers Island after suffering a seizure while in solitary confinement. Her sister, Melania Brown and members of her family have been advocating for the end of solitary confinement, a promise that Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to fulfil.

“Two correctional officers watched her die, they laughed when they could have saved her life. The mayor made a promise to me and my family to end solitary confinement and invoked my sister’s name while making that promise. He has yet to fulfill that promise. RMAS is just another name for solitary confinement. There is no real change, the slightly different change of the cage is not going to save my sister’s life. Twenty-three hours alone in a cell is inhumane. Every time you see my picture in the newspaper you will remember what you did to my sister,” Brown said.

Melania Brown showcased a tattoo of her sister, Layleen Polanco who died in solitary confinement. Photo by Dean Moses

Brown was joined by several groups, each calling for a true ban of solitary confinement and significant human engagement, which means incarcerated individuals would have access to at least 14 hours of out of cell time including access to at least 7 hours of congregate programming and activities that are in a separate space with other people.

“They use these cages within a cage not only for behavioral problems, they use it for their own doing. They use it whenever they want. My sister deserves to be here today with me. I shouldn’t be going through this. I shouldn’t be repeating her story over, and over again. The mayor lied to us, but that just shows what kind of leader he is,” Brown said.

Holding up photographs of the RMAS tier cages, Brown along with other attendees called it inhumane and a violation to the HALT act and human rights.

Several elected officials rallied around the cause. Photo by Dean Moses

“This is not the end of solitary confinement. This is not out-of-cell time,” said Council member Keith Powers, Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, describing his tour of Rikers Island to see the RMAS units, adding, “There is no way this counts as the mayor’s promise to end solitary confinement. There is simply no way. No reasonable New Yorker, no reasonable human being would look at this and think this is what the mayor said in June 2020 when he said he was going to end solitary confinement. So, I’m here to say: Enough of the trick plays here, enough of this playbook of trying to say one thing and do the other thing. We have a role and responsibility here as New Yorkers, but also the Department, the Board and the mayor said they were not going to do this. They said they were going to do something different.”

Powers firmly states that he is confident that a bill will be passed this year to end solitary confinement, but he also admits that even after it is passed elected officials must make sure that the DOC and BOC abide by these laws.

In a statement, DOC Press Secretary Jason Kersten said the following: “Not only are we confident that RMAS complies with HALT when it comes to eliminating solitary, we believe it goes much further. It mandates more programming, eliminates the use of routine restraints, and allows people to communicate with the people next to them for a minimum of 10 hours a day. We don’t claim that it’s perfect, and we will keep refining it after the initial implementation in November.”

With signs in hand, the demand was clear. Photo by Dean Moses
Dozens attended the rally. Photo by Dean Moses