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New Solitary Confinement Plan At Rikers: Humane Or Putting Officers At Risk?

A view of buildings on Rikers Island penitentiary complex .

New York City officials unanimously agreed Tuesday to eliminate solitary confinement for inmates under 21. The decision is groundbreaking: Jails across the U.S. impose solitary confinement on misbehaving inmates.

In recent years, the Department of Correction has been plagued by accusations of inmate abuse at Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in the U.S. In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published Boxed In: The True Cost of Extreme Isolation in New York's Prisons, a yearlong investigation.

In 2014, The New York Times published a scathing investigative piece entitled Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail:

"Brutal attacks by correction officers on inmates — particularly those with mental health issues — are common occurrences inside Rikers, the country's second-largest jail, a four-month investigation by The New York Times found.

"Reports of such abuses have seldom reached the outside world, even as alarm has grown this year over conditions at the sprawling jail complex. A dearth of whistle-blowers, coupled with the reluctance of the city's Department of Correction to acknowledge the problem and the fact that guards are rarely punished, has kept the full extent of the violence hidden from public view."

Later that year, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that he'd sue the city over the treatment of teenage inmates.

But Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, told NPR today, "It's imperative that people understand that you can't have a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old that commits murder in the streets of New York City come to jail, and you expect us to treat them like a 6- or 7-year-old and give them a time out. I'm not suggesting there be any brute force involved. What I'm suggesting is that when an inmate commits a crime by slashing another inmate, by raping another inmate, by breaking the jaw or the arm, or punching out the eye socket of a New York City correction officer that he or she be charged with a crime and be given punishment for that crime."

The main accusations against the New York prison system have been on the topic of solitary confinement. In 2006, NPR's Laura Sullivan reported an award-winning series on solitary confinement as a widespread practice across the U.S.: "Isolation today means 23 hours a day in a concrete cell no bigger than a bathroom. One hour a day is spent alone in a concrete exercise pen, about the length and width of two cars."

Solitary confinement can last weeks, months, even over a year. Last August, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law for more oversight of solitary confinement practices.

Studies indicate that the practice of solitary confinement is harmful to teenagers because their brains are still developing. It can worsen and even create mental illness. In an interview with NPR, Donna Lieberman, the executive director for the NYCLU said:

"Individuals are consigned to solitary for not just months — years. And are frequently released directly from solitary without any transition services, onto the street. It's an inhumane system and it's counterproductive for society."

But the guards' union opposed the plan, saying it will put officers at risk. And Seabrook says he's concerned with more than just the safety of corrections officers. He worries about the effects this will have on other inmates.

"Inmates that come to jail, a lot of them don't get involved in different types of gang activity," he says. "They wanna come, do their time, go home, go upstate, whatever the judge orders them to do."

Lieberman claims theses concerns are unfounded. "There is no basis for the claim that these reforms put officers at greater risk," she says. "It doesn't make guards any safer to beat the living daylights out of somebody, putting somebody in conditions in which they die. That doesn't make anybody safer. It doesn't make anybody safer to leave mental illness untreated."

Bryanne Hamill, a former New York family court judge is on the city's Board of Correction that voted unanimously to approve the new plan at Rikers. "There's a great deal of concern about police brutality for young people of color," she says. "Inside the jails we have skyrocketing levels of violence. And the violence is across the board against all of the inmates, regardless of age and color."

The new policy will not take effect until January 2016, but there are immediate changes: Inmates 18 and older can be sentenced only to 30 days of solitary confinement.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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