Ending Solitary Confinement in Manhattan
As Manhattan District Attorney, I will use the office to end the practice of solitary for all Manhattan pre-trial defendants.
I am running for Manhattan District Attorney because our city’s approach to criminal justice including jail conditions, requires transformation. The practice of solitary confinement, locking our fellow New Yorkers in small metal boxes for days at a time, directly contravenes our City’s professed progressive values. As Manhattan’s top local law enforcement official, I will be charged with enforcing the law, but the law lacks legitimacy if it means prosecuting a person who is detained in solitary confinement.
Early in the #CLOSErikers campaign, the de Blasio administration tried to convince advocates that “reforming Rikers” was the better approach, and gave us a tour of the island, including its solitary units. Thanks to relentless advocates, there are now far fewer detainees in solitary than during the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations. Nevertheless, seeing these barbaric and inhumane units, and listening to the experience of people in them, has haunted me since.
A solitary confinement unit is tiny. It has enough room for a person to lie down, stand up, and that’s about it. The only connection to the outside world is a small porthole on the door. I am not a particularly claustrophobic person, but it made me anxious just looking into these spaces, and there is no doubt I would start losing my mind after several hours in such a space — to say nothing of 15, 30, or 60 days. I am not alone in this perspective. Corrections Commissioner Rick Raemisch overhauled the Colorado solitary policy after spending a single night there himself. And medical experts are clear that solitary confinement wreaks havoc on a person’s mental health. The United Nations has even declared that solitary confinement should largely be banned, and that more than 15 days in solitary is considered torture.
If we call ourselves a progressive city, how can we tolerate this? One offered justification is to protect correction officers. Research has shown, however, that facilities that eliminate or reduce the use of solitary actually become safer. Another argument is the need to separate people who fight, or to isolate people (often with mental health issues) for safety reasons. But if people need to be removed from the general population for a few hours, or receive mental health care, that does not require the torturous cells we use now. You can call it “administrative segregation,” “punitive segregation,” “enhanced supervision,” “transitional repair,” and “restrictive housing,” but solitary confinement is torture.
Fortunately, the solutions to this are straightforward. At the state level, legislators can pass the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which already has significant political and community support. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio, the Board of Correction, or the City Council could eliminate solitary at existing jails. At bare minimum, we should not be constructing new solitary cells, as original designs suggest for the proposed borough-based jails. But in the meantime, as advocates continue to fight for these reforms, there is also a role for District Attorneys to play.
As District Attorney, I would not allow any Manhattan defendant to be tortured by solitary confinement in our city jails. This is simpler than it sounds: if it is brought to the attention of my office that we are prosecuting someone who is being held in or at risk of being placed in solitary, we would begin steps towards dropping charges against the individual unless they are removed from solitary cells, and communicate this clearly to the Judge, Mayor’s office and Corrections Department. Our expectation is that in the interest of justice and public safety, the next mayor would agree that continuing the case without creating additional harm is more important than any perceived interest served by solitary confinement.
In undoing mass incarceration, we are not only unspooling 50 years of poor policy choices, but also confronting centuries of racism, a cultural aversion to conversations around mental health, and how to process new evidence about public health and public safety. That means letting go of broken practices from the past. In the moment, such solutions may feel drastic. But consider how you feel when walking past medieval torture devices in a museum. Years from now, won’t we similarly look back this way on confining people to a box? That’s how I feel right now, and I know many in our community feel the same way. It’s time for Manhattan to abolish solitary confinement.
“ The criminal justice system cannot do any justice if we’re investing in what the United Nations has declared as torture. Solitary confinement passed down from slavery and has no place in the civilized world. Years ago, solitary was declared a human rights violation, and countless reports and organizations have condemned it since. We have the power to end it.”
Five Mualimm-Ak, Executive Director of Incarcerated Nation Network, INC
Read more of our campaign positions at JanosForDA.com, including our plans to cut pre-trial detention by 80%, abolish the Office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor, bring fairness to sentencing policy, and maintain justice during the coronavirus outbreak.