Advocates call for end to solitary confinement at public hearing

(New York City) — Hundreds gathered Dec. 19 at a Board of Correction public hearing to address the contentious use of solitary confinement and proposed segregated housing in New York City jails.

The City has proposed the creation of “Enhanced Supervision Housing Units” (ESHUs), a new form of high-security housing that would remove selected people from the general jail population, restrict movement within facilities and reduce contact visits. As part of the proposed rules, the City’s Department of Correction (DOC) clarified that it plans to exclude 16 and 17 years olds from the units, as well as from solitary confinement or “Punitive Segregation.” However, if the Board adopts the rules, incarcerated people 18 and older could be placed in Punitive Segregation and ESHUs.

In an effort spearheaded by the Legal Aid Society and the Urban Justice Center, some advocates at the hearing called on the Board to end solitary confinement for all incarcerated people and reject the proposal. Children’s Rights joined the Children’s Defense Fund, the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and others to condemn the use of solitary confinement for young people up to age 25, and to call for the Board to exclude those up to age 25 from ESHUs.

Among those who testified was Attorney Jennifer Parish of the Urban Justice Center and Jails Action Coalition.

“I’m here today because so many people are suffering at Rikers Island,” said Parish. “We know these people, we have witnessed the torment … solitary confinement is a human rights violation that is happening right under our noses.”

“We share a common goal to make these jails safe,” said attorney Sarah Kerr of the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project. “The new proposal does not set standards to improve anything. It is the wrong response.”

Cardozo Law School professor Ellen Yaroshevsky testified to the impacts of solitary confinement, on the heels of a report she recently prepared for the Board examining policies and practices affecting adolescents at Rikers Island.

“The current proposal is flawed,” said Yaroshevsky. “[Solitary confinement] is extremely damaging … Effective policies require its elimination.”

According to the report, over 25 percent of the youth in the Rikers population have spent time in solitary confinement, many for months at a stretch. Of the 500 youth who are living at Rikers, over 75 percent are awaiting trial.

Manhattan resident Zulay Velasquez, who took part in a rally prior to the public hearing, knows how devastating solitary confinement can be. She told Children’s Rights that her stepson, now 20, spent a total of one year in solitary in upstate New York.

“Being in isolation can be damaging for the mind. They’re going through so much already … They get hopeless and restless,” Velasquez said. “He told us there was hardly any light. The conditions in the summer were unbearably hot, like a sauna.”

Solitary confinement can have a serious, long-term impact on the cognitive and social abilities of some of the most vulnerable young people in society. Because brain development is still underway in the 20s, young people face serious risk of harm if subjected to excessive isolation, including increased risk for mental illness, anxiety, rage, self-mutilation and suicide.

Children’s Rights attorney Julia Davis, an advocate for children in foster care who are disproportionately represented in juvenile and adult correctional facilities, testified on the impact of solitary confinement on adolescents and young adults who have already experienced significant trauma in their lives.

“For more than a generation, national and state child welfare policy has recognized that young people like those in foster care require ongoing supports and services through early adulthood … Our city has a chance to be a leader in addressing the urgent developmental needs of detained and incarcerated youth. If we don’t seize this opportunity, the costs and consequences to society, taxpayers – and most importantly our young people themselves – will be devastating.”

According to news reports, 48 percent of 5,400 children arrested and detained in New York City in 2010 had previous or current foster care involvement.