When Kalief Browder came home in 2013 from Rikers Island after being detained for allegedly stealing a backpack full of valuables, his family immediately recognized the change. Two years of being isolated for 23 hours a day in pretrial solitary confinement had made it difficult for him to socialize, a state his brother Akeem described as “desensitized.” Instead of picking up old hobbies, he spent hours at a time alone in his room, pacing as he did in his cell. He died by suicide two years after getting out. “Solitary confinement is not just torture,” says Akeem Browder, who adds that his brother “could not cope with the inhumane conditions.”
Browder’s death sparked a movement to end solitary confinement at Rikers, which has made several gains in the years since his story rose to national prominence. The New York City Department of Correction announced the end of solitary for minors in 2014, when more than 500 people were in punitive segregation at any given time; the next year, the ban was extended for inmates under 22 and those with serious mental illnesses. Following the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman found unresponsive in her cell after suffering an epileptic seizure, de Blasio pushed to end the practice, with the Board of Correction voting to end solitary in city jails in March 2021.
But in November, de Blasio paused reform as violence against correction officers was met with widespread CO no-shows, which contributed to conditions that led to the deaths of 15 inmates over the past year. As a result, solitary confinement remains the status quo for those moved to Rikers’ punitive ward known as “the Bing,” where inmates are sent most often for violence against COs or other inmates. One of eight detainees held in solitary in early January recently told City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán that he waited two weeks for treatment for his broken shoulder, while another said he had been “in the box” for 30 days for throwing water at a correction officer. In March, New York will ban the use of solitary for more than 15 days in all state prisons, a period the United Nations says can amount to torture.
Under Mayor Eric Adams, it appears solitary isn’t going anywhere: Days after his inauguration, a Department of Correction spokesperson told Intelligencer that the pause on reforming the system would be extended for an unnamed amount of time. “It’s never changed,” says Akeem Browder of the treatment of inmates on the island jail, “although we’ve talked and fought about it for so long.”
As it often goes with the new mayor, the way he announced his support of punitive segregation was as noteworthy as the announcement itself. After Adams declared his support, Cabán organized a letter from the majority of the incoming City Council asking him to reverse his position, writing, “New York City will never torture our way to safety.” Adams didn’t like that. “I’m going to ignore them,” he said, adding that the 29 councilmembers on the letter would “have the right to question me on safety and public-safety matters” once they, too, spend decades as a cop.
Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, lauds the stance from the incoming mayor, with whom he notes his communications have been “very positive.” “As a prior law-enforcement officer, he gets it. He understands the dangers,” Boscio says, noting that assaults on COs increased 25 percent last year.
But many advocates for ending the practice were alarmed by the comment, which suggested the mayor considers himself above accountability on this front. “You’re supposed to work for the people; I thought elected officials work for us,” says Victor Pate, the statewide organizer with the #HALTsolitary Campaign. Pate, who spent more than two years in solitary upstate in the 1970s, is frustrated by the lack of clarity on how the policy will operate under Adams’s watch. There have already been separate concerns about transparency at the DOC: As one of his first acts, Adams’s appointed commissioner Louis Molina pushed out the head of internal investigations who had inquired into the backlog of use-of-force cases at Rikers.
Even if Adams reverses himself in the future, the replacement for solitary falls short of abolishing the practice. Called the Risk Management Accountability System, it largely involves attaching a fenced-in cell to restrictive-housing units to allow inmates a minimum of ten hours outside their cell each day. Much of that outside time would occur in the “lockout cage” attached to their cell.
“That approach, to have a cage next to a cage, is something that I cannot believe another being could think of,” says Browder, who runs a foundation dedicated to reforming pretrial detention in New York. Cabán described the change as “solitary by another name. A few-feet extension to a cage does not change the nature of solitary confinement and the massive effect it has on mental and physical health.” Instead, Cabán has advocated for more medical care and “proven alternatives with full days out of cell” that are “better for safety and health.” The outgoing DOC commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, recently told NPR that the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has resisted reform “because they falsely equated solitary with safety, and really what they should have been doing is equating programming with safety.” Boscio, the COBA president, says the system has been “watered down” and calls punitive segregation “an essential tool that we need to maintain safety and security in our jails.”
With the Adams administration further suspending the RMAS reform, the next step toward ending solitary involves the council moving forward on legislation to ban the practice in city jails. While Cabán did not provide a timeline for when the bill would be reintroduced, she notes that it will be difficult for Adams to “ignore the majority of the body.” Nevertheless, she remains pragmatic on working with the new mayor: “There’s points of alignment and points of tension, and we’ve got to keep them in stride.”
Browder says he and his family “still feel the loss” of his brother, appealing to the new mayor to end the practice “because it only damages families for the long run.” Pate, who spent time in solitary more than 40 years ago, says the “experience of being in that space” never goes away. Elevators frequently set off the feeling of isolation. “It doesn’t take but a minute to be transformed back to when they closed the door on you in your cell. That’s every time, I don’t care, every time I’m in an elevator, that’s that feeling. Snaps me right back to being in solitary confinement. Of course, when the door opens, I’m back again.”