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New York City may ban solitary confinement in jails as a bill outlawing the practice gets veto-proof majority

Exclusive: An effort that would end the practice of isolating inmates — except under narrow circumstances — comes as the plan to close Rikers Island appears to have stalled.

A bill that would ban the practice of solitary confinement in New York City jails now has a veto-proof supermajority of support among city lawmakers, the legislation's authors and inmate advocates say, signaling momentum on an issue linked to inmate deaths and spurring calls for an overhaul of the city's troubled system.

At least two-thirds of New York City's 51-seat legislative body have attached their names as co-sponsors to the bill, which was introduced in June.

"Solitary confinement — no matter what you call it — is traumatic and inhumane, with lethal effects on mental health and safety for all," said Carlina Rivera, a councilwoman from Manhattan and the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee who introduced the legislation along with New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island jail, on Jan. 28, 2016.
A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island jail, on Jan. 28, 2016.Bebeto Matthews / AP file

"During my most recent visit to Rikers, I spoke with a man who was kept in 'involuntary protective custody' without a bed for nearly two days awaiting adequate mental health observation," Rivera said. "With supermajority bill sponsorship, it is now time for the City Council to end solitary confinement, in all forms and by all names."

The issue has taken on renewed urgency as scrutiny deepens on the Rikers Island jail complex and across the city's jails where, so far this year, 13 inmates who were being held or had just been released have died. The latest occurred Tuesday night, after an inmate held at Rikers on a burglary arrest slit his own throat with a razor and was on life support. Three employees have been suspended amid an investigation, NBC New York reported.

At least 16 inmates in city jails died in 2021 — the most since 2013.

In a news conference Monday, Comptroller Brad Lander said the Department of Correction is not expected to meet its deadline to close Rikers by 2027, part of an effort to replace the complex with what New York City says would be "safer modern jails." A hearing over the solitary confinement bill could happen as soon as next month, Rivera said.

The legislation would prohibit inmates from being held in isolation in a cell for more than two hours during the day in a 24-hour period or for more than eight hours at night to sleep. Inmates could be held for longer in order to de-escalate conflict or if they pose an immediate danger to another person, but that can't exceed more than four hours in a 24-hour period. Staff and mental health professionals must also interact with the inmates at least once an hour, with medical checks every 15 minutes.

"Our bill provides clear guidelines, based in the experiences of people who have endured solitary, to allow for short term separation when needed while preventing the deeply damaging practice and impact of punitive isolation," Williams said in a statement.

The office of Mayor Eric Adams, a retired New York City Police Department chief, did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday about whether he would sign the bill. But if the mayor vetoes it, the City Council can override it with a two-thirds vote.

Last year, the Board of Correction, an independent oversight board of New York City's jail system, voted to end solitary confinement, in which inmates have accused the department of keeping them isolated and confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. But politicians and activists are adamant that is still occurring.

One incident came to light in July, when Elijah Muhammad, who was in Rikers on an assault charge, became the 10th detainee to die this year. He had spent a total of more than 32 hours in isolation in the days before he died, The New York Times reported.

He had also been locked up for more than 6 1/2 hours in a shower stall in June after getting into a fight with jail staff and placed in a so-called decontamination shower, according to a Board of Correction email obtained by NBC New York.

Muhammad, 31, died of a suspected drug overdose in his cell July 10.

The Department of Correction announced an officer was fired but provided few details.

The department's commissioner, Louis Molina, who is Latino, said at a Board of Correction meeting in the wake of Muhammad's death that past mismanagement was to blame for conditions at Rikers and that he was "doing everything in my power every day as a person of color to reform what this administration has inherited."

In a statement Tuesday, he said the department was operating "enhanced supervision housing and other less restrictive housing" in compliance with a state law signed last year that restricts prisons and jails from holding people in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days.

"By using sound correctional practices and strategies we are transforming our facilities into a safe and humane jail system," Molina added.

As of Tuesday, 105 people were being held in "enhanced supervision housing," according to the department.

Inmate advocates say Adams has sent mixed messages about the practice. Before taking office, he pledged to put violent inmates in "punitive segregation," but he has also expressed support for increased mental health treatment, recreation and cell size.

During a news conference Monday, Adams reiterated, "I don't believe in solitary confinement," while adding that the vast majority of those placed into punitive segregation are "repeatedly dangerous" and have attacked other inmates.

"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," he said of those in favor of the bill. "Because I don't know what they want us to do with them. I think people who commit violent crimes should be removed from society. And they commit violent crimes while they are removed from society, they need to go somewhere so they don't hurt people again."

Adams has had the support of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, the union representing officers in city jails. Its president, Benny Boscio, said punitive segregation is needed to decrease assaults on officers and nonviolent inmates.

"It is outrageous that the public advocate, despite his numerous visits to Rikers Island, has pursued this reckless legislation that would prevent us from separating violent offenders from nonviolent offenders," Boscio said. "How many more lives have to be jeopardized by putting a political agenda ahead of public safety?"

But Victor Pate, the co-director of the #HALTsolitary Campaign and a former Rikers inmate who said he had been in solitary confinement for more than two years, urged the mayor to sign the bill and "end this practice once and for all."

"It has to stop," he said, "and it has to stop now."