New York City Ends Solitary for Inmates Under 21

January 14, 2015
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New York City’s Rikers Island has eliminated solitary confinement for inmates under 21, responding to criticism that solitary for minors is harmful and inhumane.

The city’s Board of Correction voted unanimously Tuesday to eliminate the practice of isolating young inmates at the city’s primary detention facility. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte have pledged to improve conditions at the jail, but the federal government has sued, accusing Rikers of a pattern of unnecessary and excessive force. 

As of last week, there were 497 inmates between ages 19 and 21 at Rikers, 103 of whom were in solitary confinement, The New York Times reports.

See also: Watch our documentary Solitary Nation

De Blasio said the city has relied too much in the past on “punitive segregation” and is now “pursuing evidence-based practices that will lead to a safer and more humane system.” The city plans to add a new, non-punitive housing unit for its most violent inmates.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the changes, said the move made New York City a leader in solitary confinement reform.

“With these reforms, New York City has taken an important stand for basic human rights and reaffirmed its commitment to the safety of prisoners, prison staff and our communities,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “An institution as profoundly broken as Rikers Island will require wholesale reform to transform into a humane environment that emphasizes treatment and rehabilitation over punishment and isolation, and these rules are a major step forward.”

Also read: What Does Solitary Confinement Do To Your Mind?

The vote marked the second time in weeks that New York City has taken a position against isolating young inmates. Last month, de Blasio announced that 91 prisoners ages 16 or 17 were in solitary when he took office last January, and that all had been removed.

New York City’s solitary confinement changes are part of a larger cultural shift around the issue of youth imprisonment. Over the past nine years, 24 states have passed laws to limit the placement of juveniles in adult jails and prisons amid research that it can be especially psychologically damaging to young people. But about 6,000 juveniles remain in adult facilities across the United States.

FRONTLINE’s Stickup Kid profiled one former juvenile held in solitary. Alonza Thomas was sent to an adult-prison in California at age 16 under a state law targeting so-called juvenile “super-predators.”

Michael Bien, an attorney representing Thomas, said his client was placed in solitary partly for his own protection, because he was young and vulnerable. But Thomas said the experience of spending up to 23 hours alone each day was extremely traumatic, and that he took hundreds of pills and cut himself during the ordeal.

You can watch Stickup Kid here: