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Solitary Man

Two things can be true at the same time. The screws at Rikers can be a cruel, sometimes criminal, lot toward their treatment of jailed pre-trial and sentenced detainees. Some of these detainees are violent and uncontrollable. The ugly reality, and it is extremely ugly, is that jails are dangerous, awful places that do almost nothing well aside from segregating people from  outside society.

What they cannot do is isolate the bad dudes, whether they’re the corrections officers or the inmates, from others within the jail but for solitary confinement. The very progressive New York City Council wants to end the practice.

The City Council is expected on Wednesday to approve a bill that would make New York the largest American city to ban solitary confinement in city jails in most cases, part of a national campaign to end a practice that critics say amounts to torture.

The Council’s push to ban solitary confinement has been stalled for years over concerns about staffing shortages and violence against jail workers. Mayor Eric Adams has argued since he took office two years ago that isolating detainees is an important tool to help protect them.

To a shockingly large extent. solitary confinement has been used as an easy weapon of retaliation by guards, who use it to teach the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic general population who’s the boss and what happens when you don’t do as you’re told, or mouth off. This doesn’t happen because guards are the good guys, as there is a long history of abusive and criminal conduct in the jail, largely ignored by the Bronx district attorney who has jurisdiction over the Rock. And let’s face it, the job of corrections officer, as they’re benignly called, does not attract the most empathetic group of folks.

But at the same time, not all the inmates are angels either. If a prisoner has harmed another prisoner, or a guard, what do you do with them? They’re already in jail, and putting them on double secret probation isn’t going to do much to help.

“Losing privileges is something that is understandable,” he said. “Losing a basic human right shouldn’t be.”

Solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation, is the practice of holding a detainee alone in a cell for most of the day as punishment. The bill would ban the practice beyond a four-hour “de-escalation” period during an emergency. Correction officers would be required to check on detainees every 15 minutes during that period and refer health concerns to medical staff.

Losing privileges isn’t going to prevent a shiv from finding its way between your ribs either. While four hours in solitary isn’t “nothing,” it’s not much of a threat to compel a killer to behave more appropriately. And the point of solitary isn’t merely to teach prisoners to behave “or else,” but to put them in a place where they can’t twist that shiv.

In New York State, lawmakers in 2021 limited solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. Six years earlier, the practice was banned for all inmates 21 and younger in New York City after the death of Kalief Browder, a young man who was detained at the troubled Rikers jail complex for three years, including about two years in solitary confinement.

The tragedy of what was done to Kalief Browder was a nightmare that has generated a few positive changes. Two years (or ten) in solitary is torture. Regardless of anything else, there is no excuse for torturing inmates, and yet it’s hardly uncommon for people to spend years in solitary. But reducing the length of time to 15 days is a significant step forward. Whether that’s the right length of time is another question for which answers are hard to find. What’s right for someone isn’t right for others, but one-size-fits-all is the system’s way of attempting to limit personal malice and bias from decision making.

Atop the problem, there is a huge shortage of guards at Rikers, often as a result of screws not showing up to work since their union contract makes it almost impossible to fire them. Crafting new procedures that are labor intensive are almost certain to fail, as guards don’t magically appear because the City Council enacts an ordinance.

But when facing a shortage of guards and a surplus of violent dudes, what other options are there beyond solitary?

Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the Council was “hellbent on protecting our most violent population instead of protecting us.” He said that there had been more than 6,500 assaults against correction officers over the last three years, including 51 sexual assaults against female officers.

“This reckless legislation is going to needlessly jeopardize thousands of lives by putting politics ahead of safety,” he said.

And yet, this doesn’t change the fact that solitary confinement, no matter what euphemism it’s called, is torture and destructive.

“The physical and psychological harm caused by solitary confinement leads to increased death and violence on Rikers and ultimately makes us all less safe,” she said.

Researchers say that prolonged isolation does long-lasting psychological damage to people who are incarcerated and impedes their rehabilitation.

Bear in mind that these same individuals are highly likely to be released after their cases are dismissed or they’ve completed their sentence, and they’re no better off psychologically when they re-enter society than they were in jail or prison. It’s a nightmare.

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