Rikers Island descends into ‘disorder and chaos’ as Queens lawmaker discovers troubling development

NIC Solitary Tier
Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas is calling on the city to end all forms of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. (Photo courtesy of HALT Solitary)

Hours before a scathing report from a federal probe revealed “chaos” on Rikers Island, Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann announced on Tuesday that she would step down from her post on May 31 after three years at the helm of the city’s prison system.

The latest report from the Nunez federal monitor describes “how the uniformed leadership in the jails perpetuates a chaotic environment plagued by operational failures that threaten security and chronic disruptions in basic services, such as recreation and commissary, that cause frustration and despair,” according to The Legal Aid Society.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association blamed gross mismanagement during “one of the darkest chapters in the history of our agency” marked by record levels of jail violence.

A Queens lawmaker found another troubling development at the notorious prison complex.

Following an unannounced tour of the Rikers Island prison complex on Friday, May 7, Jackson Heights Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas called out the city’s Board of Correction plan to implement solitary confinement by another name and urged the panel to amend its proposed rules to “truly end solitary confinement” in New York City jails.

González-Rojas saw the Structurally Restrictive Housing Units, where incarcerated people will be locked alone in a cage 24 hours a day for an indeterminate period.

“No matter what name we give it, solitary confinement is torture and has no place in our city. The mayor promised to end solitary confinement and he must fulfill his promise,” González-Rojas said. “We saw the NIC Structurally Restrictive Housing Units that are meant to be alternatives to solitary confinement under the Board of Correction’s proposed rules. Being locked in these cages alone for 24 hours a day is nothing more than solitary confinement by another name.”

QNS reached out to City Hall and is awaiting a response.

Queens Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry’s HALT Solitary Confinement Act that was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in March limits the use of segregated confinement and implements alternative rehabilitation methods — including the creation of residential rehabilitation units — expands the definition of segregated confinement and eliminates the use of segregated confinement for vulnerable incarcerated populations.

If the board’s proposed rules were enacted as currently written, they would violate the recently enacted law which applies to all state prisons and local jails — including New York City jails — and prohibits solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days in all circumstances, requires all people in solitary up to those 15 days to have four hours of out-of-cell programming and generally requires that people in alternatives to solitary have at least seven hours of out-of-cell congregate activity with other people that is comparable to the general jail population.

A recent study revealed that solitary confinement is associated with increased rates of death after release, particularly by suicide as well as overdose.

“Since the board’s proposed rules fail to end solitary confinement, we call on the New York City Council to enact legislation that will finally and fully end solitary in all its forms,” González-Rojas said. “This must end now. We owe it to Layleen, Kalief and so many others.”

The Assemblywoman referred to Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in solitary confinement after suffering an epileptic seizure, and Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after he was held for three years on Rikers Island, two of which were spent in solitary confinement.

Bronx Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez toured Rikers with González-Rojas and called for an end to the board’s proposed rules.

“Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco lost their lives because of solitary confinement, as have countless others,” Fernandez said. “We can not have any more political games. To call something out-of-cell time when a person is locked alone in a cage is beyond absurd. New York City needs to truly end solitary confinement in all its forms and it needs to do that immediately.”