Everyone But Mayor Eric Adams Seems To Want To Get Rid Of Solitary Confinement On Rikers

Criminal Justice System
Everyone But Mayor Eric Adams Seems To Want To Get Rid Of Solitary Confinement On Rikers
Riker's Island | Martin Lewison | Flickr

On June 7, 2019, Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman, died due to lack of medical care after an epileptic seizure while in solitary confinement in New York City's Rikers Island jail. Since then, the horrific incident has led to outcry over the use of solitary confinement in Rikers, causing then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce a plan to end the practice in the summer of 2020 (sort of) and instead replace 24-hour isolation with a two-level Risk Management Accountability System that allowed for 10 hours out-of-cell time, limited isolation, and a "strong presumption" of moving to a lower risk level in a month. The plan, however, was delayed due to staffing issues at Rikers and upon assuming office, Mayor Eric Adams used an executive order to put it off indefinitely.

Since then, Adams, who says he does not support "solitary confinement" but rather "punitive segregation" — an alternative name for the exact same practice — has continually fought with the City Council over the issue.

But now, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York City's second-highest ranking elected representative after Mayor Adams, is proposing legislation to end the practice, which Adams's office says he will review once it is introduced.

According to Gothamist, which has seen the draft legislation, the new policy "would allow officers to put people in solitary confinement only for a few hours if someone poses an immediate danger. Medical staff would also need to check on them every 15 minutes, and mental health clinicians would be required to conduct rounds once an hour." This would certainly help prevent something like what happened to Layleen Polanco from happening to another person.

Williams told Gothamist that all of the widely acknowledged safety problems at Rikers, including staffing issues, make solitary confinement even more dangerous than usual.

Will Mayor Adams go for it? Probably not.

In December of 2021, in response to the City Council sending him a letter pleading with him not to bring the practice back, Adams told reporters that no one has the right to question him on this issue unless they too wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years. “There’s a body of people that are coming into the City Council — they have no desire in moving our city forward. Their desire is to be disruptive. What I am going to do? I’m going to ignore them,” he said, with a big smile on his face. “If they like it or not, I’m the mayor.”

This great love of solitary confinement (sorry, "punitive segregation") separates Adams from not only the City Council of New York City, but the United States at large. In fact, five out of six voters actually support seriously restricting solitary confinement. As much as the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners is seen as integral to the American identity, people really seem to not like this particular practice very much.

I'm willing to say this may be an area in which I am naïve, but I actually think this is the ideal, politically smart time for congressional Democrats to go after solitary confinement across the nation. Rightwing pundits are screaming about how the January 6 defendants are in solitary confinement, which means it will be somewhat more difficult than usual for their politicians to oppose getting rid of it.

Just look at this poorly informed woman who for some reason doesn't know that John Hinckley Jr. was very famously found not guilty of attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan by reason of insanity and thinks he just got out of "prison" a few days ago, and who is also yelling about January 6 insurrectionists being held in solitary confinement. This got over 900 retweets.

There are also loads of tweets about this solitary confinement from notably terrible pundits like Dinesh D'Souza and Emerald Robinson. Freaking Louie Gohmert is somehow proposing anti-solitary confinement legislation (it's not great, but it exists).

I'm not saying it's a slam dunk, I'm not saying that they're not being opportunistic and/or that they're not disingenuous using issues of carceral human rights violations that they don't actually care about to advance their agenda, just that we have slightly more leverage than we previously had for this issue than we may ever have again and if we can use it, we should. Let's be opportunistic our own selves. Because even when it is applied to people we really don't like, solitary confinement is torture. That's not just me, that's the United Nations saying that. It is also ineffective.

As people who care about human rights writ large, we have an obligation to use whatever opportunity we can to end this cruel and inhumane practice not only on Rikers Island but everywhere in this country. It is physically dangerous, psychologically dangerous, and, as a bonus, ending it doesn't really cost anyone any money. We can do a popular thing that costs almost no money and also save some lives and dignity in the process. What's better than that?

Do your Amazon shopping through this link, because reasons.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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