CoJo urges de Blasio to move to end solitary confinement

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at an Oct. 17 press conference on the vote to approve four borough-based jails in the city. (Photo: Mark Hallum)

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson put Mayor Bill de Blasio on the spot for what has been seen as an attempt by the administration to hamper discussions in regard to ending solitary confinement in detention facilities.

The Oct. 25 letter from Johnson references media reports from THE CITY in which a Board of Correction (BOC) member claimed there was pressure from Mayoral staff to slow the roll in the effort to establish new rules for how detainees can be housed.

“I was disheartened that less than a week after City Hall declared a beginning to the end of mass incarceration, media reports and a statement made by a member of the [BOC] during Tuesday’s public meeting indicate that your staff pressured the BOC to delay the rule-making process to end solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing akin to solitary confinement,” Johnson said.

Dr. Robert Cohen, a physician who serves on the BOC said at a recent meeting that the body postponed a vote on new restrictions to solitary confinement because of an alleged effort by the city to block the certification process of the board’s potential vote.

The vote will now take place at an Oct. 31 meeting of the BOC, according to THE CITY.

A spokeswoman for the Mayor’s office, however, argued that the efforts by the administration were not necessarily overstepping any boundaries on account of the fact that, though the BOC is independent, the city would ultimately have to carry out any new policies voted on.

“New York City is a national leader in reforming punitive segregation and humane correctional practices,” a statement from City Hall read. “Since 2014, we’ve seen the most sweeping punitive segregation reforms of any administration in history. We are actively working with the board and the department of correction to further restrict punitive segregation and we expect the Board to take action this week.”

The Mayor’s office additionally felt as though there had not been ample time to review the new rules, and so called for the vote to be postponed.

Johnson’s letter comes just days after the City Council voted on measures to approve the building of four borough-based jails over the course of the next seven years under two ULURP applications. 

An Oct. 17 press conference, just hours before the vote was locked down, saw the speaker and other city council member who were part of the effort draft an outline of the jails before design call the vote an historic “once in a lifetime opportunity” to close jails on Rikers. The last time such an effort to change the way the detains people took place in the 1980s during the Dinkins administration and was ultimately unsuccessful.

Johnson’s office sees the number of people in Department of Corrections lock-up to drop as low as 3,300 citywide once justice reform efforts are implemented in Albany such as the abolition of cash bail. Detainees unable to afford bail accounts for a majority of those held in Rikers for extended periods of time.

Ending solitary confinement is the next item on the agenda for Johnson.

“I visited a solitary confinement unit on Rikers Island earlier this month and was appalled at the conditions there. The need to begin public discussion cannot be overstated,” Johnson concluded.

Mark Hallum