New York City Council Moves to Ban Solitary on Rikers…and Other News on Solitary Confinement This Week

Seven Days in Solitary for the Week Ending 12/20/23.

by | December 20, 2023

New this week from Solitary Watch:

The Guardian recently published an article detailing the ways in which Solitary Watch Editor-in-chief Juan Moreno Haines, who does his job while incarcerated at San Quentin, is helping to revolutionize the field of prison journalism. In a message to readers last week, Juan talked about why it is important to support this work: “The voices of incarcerated writers will deepen the public’s understanding of the criminal punishment system and its damaging effect on every aspect of our communities. And the stories they tell will help readers re-envision how we treat human beings.” Solitary Watch 

Dwayne “BIM” Staats is currently on his ninth day of a hunger strike at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Camp Hill, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Staats has been in solitary for about fourteen years altogether, including four years in Pennsylvania and ten in Delaware. In an essay for Voices From Solitary, Staats wrote about the state of solitary confinement in Pennsylvania and the conditions that led him to hunger strike. “The reality is,” he concludes, “I’d rather put my life on the line then let them bury me alive.” Solitary Watch 

• • •

This week’s pick of news and commentary about solitary confinement:

UPDATE, December 20, 5:30 pm: The New York City Council passed the bill banning the use of solitary beyond four hours for “de-escalation,” with a veto-proof supermajority of 39 votes (out of 51). NBC News | The New York City Council is expected to pass a bill today banning solitary confinement in New York City jails. Despite fierce opposition from Mayor Eric Adams and correctional union officials, the bill was pushed through with support from 11 members of New York’s Congressional delegation as well as 38 City Council sponsors. According to the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, “Losing privileges is something that is understandable…Losing a basic human right shouldn’t be.” New York Times | Although New York lawmakers passed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in 2021, over the last few years, little progress has been made to end the practice in New York City’s jails. Mayor Adams has resisted moves to end solitary, including alternative risk management systems, citing concerns by unions representing correctional officers and health care workers. The City | In a last-ditch effort to stop the bill, union officials released a statement arguing that “the Council’s bill would foster an environment of fear and instability.” However, evidence shows that reducing solitary actually makes jails safer. NY Post  | The push to ban solitary “comes as federal officials have sought to strip control over Rikers Island from the Adams administration in response to persistent violence and chaos there.” New York Times

A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of ten currently and formerly incarcerated people in Alabama alleging that the state’s work-release program amounts to “modern-day slavery,” comparable to the “convict leasing” of the past. According to the lawsuit, the incarcerated people were forced to work for public and private companies, including fast-food restaurants Burger King, McDonalds, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. If the incarcerated people refused to participate in the program, they were threatened with disciplinary action and solitary confinement. Washington Post | Incarcerated people across the country are forced to work in dangerous conditions for pennies. Additionally, in Alabama, the state takes 40% of an incarcerated person’s paycheck to fund the Department of Corrections. MSNBC

Idaho does not have mental health facilities secure enough to house people whose mental health conditions cause them to become a danger to themselves and others. Although many of these patients have never received criminal charges, convictions, or trials, the state chooses to house them in solitary confinement at a maximum security prison. Although government officials have been put on notice 14 times since 1954 that the state needs a secure mental health facility, the state continues to ignore the crisis. ProPublica

Pennsylvania State Representatives Tina Davis and Mike Schlossberg have introduced a bill that would ban solitary confinement for people with health conditions. The bill would allow incarcerated people with mental and physical health conditions enough socialization to prevent the negative physical and psychological effects of isolation. According to Rep. Davis, the bill would save taxpayers money in the long-term by mitigating the effects solitary has on reentry and reducing the associated recidivism rate. WHTM | The bill comes on the heels of another piece of legislation that was recently passed which restricts the use of solitary confinement for people who are pregnant or in postpartum recovery. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 

State lawmakers in Wisconsin have introduced legislation that would require the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to notify and update the public on the status of lockdowns and movement restrictions at prisons and jails across the state. The legislation comes after a year of frequent protests by advocates and families against the ongoing lockdowns at Waupun and Green Bay Correctional Centers. The bill is one of several introduced in November aimed at improving the conditions and sanitation in Wisconsin prisons and jails. WKOW

Illinois taxpayers continue to foot the bill for the state’s millions of dollars in settlements paid to people and families impacted by its crumbling carceral system. According to a recent report, Illinois has paid more than $13 million in legal fees so far and is expected to pay hundreds of millions more, not including the multi-billion dollar backlog in court-ordered repairs to the state’s facilities. The settlements and repair orders come as part of several class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of deaf, disabled, and mentally ill incarcerated people housed in dangerous conditions in the state’s solitary confinement units. Illinois Answers

In a recent essay, incarcerated writer Kevin Morrissey recounts his experience as a gay man incarcerated in Minnesota. When he was first incarcerated, Morrissey hid his sexuality out of fear of hate and violence from other incarcerated people leading him to be placed in solitary confinement for protection. In his essay, Morrissey describes the joy of finding connection, even if it is brief and unspoken. Prison Journalism Project

A report documenting abusive and dangerous conditions at Winn Correctional Center was recently released alongside a plea for the Department of Homeland Security to not renew the facility’s contract next year. According to the report migrants housed at Winn are confined to “filthy crowded cells, exposed to mold, fed expired food and offered tainted water,” and are frequently punished with long stays in solitary confinement for minor infractions. Reckon

Despite decades of complaints, some sexually abusive probation officers still remain employed by Los Angeles County. Beginning in the 1990s, many of the complaints were filed against one officer at Camp Scott, Thomas E. Jackson. Many of the girls who filed complaints alleged they were threatened with punishment, including solitary confinement, if they did not comply with the abuse. However, all of the cases stalled as the investigation process took so long that the girls were released before the complaints could be resolved, and Jackson remained employed by the county for decades before retiring. Los Angeles Times

Although juvenile justice officials in North Carolina claim to have stopped using solitary confinement years ago, they continue to rely on placing minors in lockdowns to cope with staffing shortages. While under a different name, the conditions of these lockdowns amount to solitary confinement. Since 2021, North Carolina has used administrative room confinements to isolate children over 2,000 times.  News & Observer 

At age 15, Shane Kendall, an autistic child with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and intellectual impairment, was charged with murder as an adult despite his disabilities, and sent to Atlanta’s notorious Fulton County Jail. Three years later, after an altercation with a cellmate, guards “gave Shane a notice that he was facing 48 days of disciplinary lock-down—essentially 24-hour a day solitary confinement,” according to a wrongful death lawsuit. The next morning he was found unresponsive following a suicide attempt, and died after being denied lifesaving care. The Appeal

Despite the Supreme Court refusing to hear the case of a man incarcerated in solitary confinement who claimed the lack of access to exercise violated his 8th Amendment rights, research shows that the practice increases physical health problems among incarcerated people. Recently some states have passed legislation banning solitary confinement for people with pre-existing medical and mental health conditions. However, Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City jails, argues that public health officials and health care workers must speak up about the health impacts of solitary on all individuals and advocate for reforms. Medpage Today

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