Three Years after United Nation Condemns Solitary Confinement It Is Still an Ugly Part of the Rikers Island Experience
Date:  09-26-2014

Report claims time spent in solitary confinement at Rikers is "inexcusably extreme"
On October 24, 2011 Reentry Central posted an article concerning the United Nation’s condemnation of solitary confinement and its call that solitary confinement should be used only under “very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible,” otherwise solitary confinement should be banned. That comment came from Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Reentry Central quoted from an article posted by the UN News Centre which included Mendez’s message on October 18, 2011: “Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” he stressed in presenting his first interim report on the practice, calling it global in nature and subject to widespread abuse.

Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition, he added, citing scientific studies that have established that some lasting mental damage is caused after a few days of social isolation.

“Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he warned.

Almost three years later the message from the UN has been ignored at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex, one of the largest in the world. “Voices from the Box: Solitary Confinement at Rikers Island,” a report from The Bronx Defenders Solitary Confinement Project adds insight to the experience of solitary confinement at Rikers.

Highlights from the report reveal:

  • Out of the 59 clients interviewed, 54 were male and 5 were female. Over half of the clients interviewed were between the ages of 16 and 20 at the time of their placements in solitary. The median age for the clients interviewed was 20. The median number of days in solitary confinement to which clients were sentenced was 90. At least 72.9% of the clients interviewed suffered from mental health issues.

  • Most of the clients interviewed spent much more than 15 days in solitary confinement. In a pattern that repeated itself many times over, clients recounted being sent to “the box” for an initial period that generally ranged from 30 to 90 days, only to find that once they were in solitary it became incredibly easy to receive additional tickets for minor offenses and various perceived slights against correction officers.

  • The average and median amounts of time that clients had already spent in solitary confinement prior to their interviews were 82.8 and 62 days, respectively. Out of the 21 clients with total ticket times of more than 100 days each, at least 14 had been in solitary confinement for 90 or more days prior to their interviews. The two clients with over 1,000 days of total ticket time had spent approximately 380 and 450 days in solitary confinement prior to their interviews.

  • When clients are released from Rikers before the conclusion of their total ticket times, their remaining days may become “owed time,” meaning that if they return to Rikers at a later point in their lives, they might be placed back in solitary confinement even without the occurrence of a new infraction. Even worse, some clients were arraigned on new criminal charges due to alleged conduct at Rikers, enabling correction officers not only to extend those clients’ time in solitary but also their time at Rikers.

  • The damage inflicted upon clients as a result of solitary confinement extended to their families and friends. Family members of clients recounted how they not only suffered from anxiety and depression as a result of clients’ placements in solitary confinement but also endured frustrating and humiliating experiences during visits to Rikers.

    The Bronx Defenders Solitary Confinement Project made several recommendations to remedy the dire circumstances surrounding solitary confinement at Rikers, including:

  • Eliminating or drastically reducing the use or duration of solitary confinement

  • Reforming the hearing, appeal and notification processes

  • Providing access to mental health therapy for
  • all those held in solitary confinement

  • Providing group programs, access to commissary and “true” outdoor recreation

    Perhaps most importantly, the report recommends developing alternatives to solitary confinement.

    The report concludes with the fact that solitary confinement plays a key role in violent behavior at Rikers, putting people who are incarcerated, staf, and civilians who enter the complex in danger. The experience of solitary confinement also has a negative impact on people who will eventually reintegrate back into the community.

    Read “Voices from the Box: Solitary Confinement at Rikers Island” here.