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NYC jail watchdog board votes for restrictive Rikers Island housing units, solitary reforms

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NEW YORK — The New York City jail oversight board voted unanimously Tuesday to create restrictive housing units at Rikers Island for violent inmates, to limit guards' longstanding practice of placing inmates in solitary confinement for breaking jailhouse rules and to ban 23-hour confinement altogether for inmates younger than 21 by next year.

The changes, amended at the eleventh hour after board members voiced reservations about the 250 beds of "enhanced supervision housing," caps more than a year of work by jail watchdogs to codify the solitary reforms. The new housing units would lock selected inmates in their cells for 17 hours daily, limit their access to religious services and the law library, screen their mail, restrict their movements and deny them certain visits.

"I do not support locking in the enhanced supervision inmates 17 hours a day," said Bryanne Hamill, a board member who met Monday with Commissioner Joseph Ponte to work out changes to the housing rules. "However, my preference to start the meaningful solitary confinement that commenced a year ago, the reforms, feels to me like it's held hostage to the enhanced supervision unit."

Jail officials had urged the Board of Correction to approve the new housing for what they say are the small number of inmates responsible for a disproportionate amount of jail stabbings and slashings — gang members, those with histories of committing serious violence or those found in possession of small blades such as scalpels.

But inmate advocates and others say the $14.8 million housing initiative is unduly harsh, will deprive inmates of their rights and could fuel further violence.

Dr. Bobby Cohen, a board member, said the initiative was ill-conceived and didn't adequately address root causes of violence on Rikers, including the role that correction officers play.

In August, federal prosecutors investigating conditions at Rikers for teenage inmates released a scathing review saying inmates were too often placed in solitary confinement and subjected to force by guards. Last month, prosecutors sued the city to speed up the pace of reforms, joining a class-action lawsuit that alleges widespread violence against inmates at Rikers.

Under the new rules, 16- and 17-year-old inmates, as well as inmates ages 18 to 21 with serious mental illnesses or physical disabilities, are banned from both solitary and the enhanced security housing. A clinician from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene can decide if an inmate in either unit should be removed. By next January, inmates ages 18 to 21 will be banned from both housing units, provided corrections officials have secured enough funding for therapy, programming and staff to reduce idle time.

The rules also shorten solitary stints — which for some Rikers inmates have lasted for years — to 30 days at any given time, down from 90, with no more than two 30-day stints allowed in any six-month period. It also eliminates so-called owed time in solitary for inmates who didn't complete solitary stints from previous incarcerations and are sent to 23-hour confinement when newly admitted to make up for the time not served.

There are currently about 700 solitary beds at Rikers and roughly 570 inmates serving time in solitary, which is called punitive segregation in New York but referred to on Rikers as "The Bing."

Norman Seabrook, head of the 9,000-member Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, who has long defended his members' use of solitary, chided the oversight board after the vote, saying it had meddled in a business it didn't fully understand.

"We will do our job, failure is not an option," he said, warning that his union intends to sue any time an inmate released from solitary after 30 days assaults a guard. "But shame on you."

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to reform the city's jails, said approving the new rules will "enhance the safety and security of every person on Rikers Island."

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