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The future of solitary confinement in New York City jails

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York City has a new mayor, and he has already waded into an old controversy - solitary confinement at the city's notorious Rikers Island jails. Before taking office New Year's Day, Eric Adams, the city's second African American mayor but the first to have previously served as an active duty police officer, promised to restore the use of solitary confinement, arguing that the punishment, which isolates inmates up to 20 hours a day, is necessary to rein in violence at the jail. The move reverses a pledge by former Mayor Bill de Blasio to end the practice that the United Nations and health experts have called a form of torture. City lawmakers sent a sharply worded letter to Adams, demanding that he uphold the former mayor's commitment, saying, quote, "New York City will never torture our way to safety," unquote.

We wanted to know more about this issue that's become a rallying cry for human rights activists not just in New York, but around the world, so we called Vincent Schiraldi. He has just concluded his service as commissioner for the New York City Department of Correction. He's now the co-director of Columbia University's Justice Lab. Vincent Schiraldi, thank you so much for talking with us.

VINCENT SCHIRALDI: Thanks for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: So people have seen this in movies, right? They think they know what it is. But most people have never been in a prison or a jail. So I'm just going to ask you to just briefly explain what solitary confinement is, and how does it look in practice in New York?

SCHIRALDI: Solitary confinement generally is defined as locking people away in a small cell, generally from interaction with pretty much anybody. In New York, the practice was greatly reduced during the de Blasio administration. There were about 600 people in solitary when Mayor de Blasio was elected. There were a few dozen by the time the mayor left office. But it's still debilitating for all of those who go through it.

MARTIN: So the U.N. says that the possible side effects include hallucination, self-directed violence, PTSD and lasting mental illness in people who were not experiencing it prior to their experience with that. You've had a very long career in corrections. You've worked in the juvenile justice system. As we said, you just concluded your service as commissioner of the Department of Correction. How do you respond to that? Is that something that you have witnessed?

SCHIRALDI: Absolutely. And it's not just in terms of mental illness, but also when people get out. Colorado dramatically reduced the use of solitary confinement because the correction commissioner was killed by somebody who went straight from being in solitary confinement for a really long time right to the street. And that guy went right to the corrections commissioner's house and killed him. Sending people straight home from solitary isn't just bad for their mental illness, but it's bad for public safety.

MARTIN: And to that question of safety, Mayor Adams often cites his long career in the NYPD as proof that he does know that these things occur. But he says that Rikers is dangerous. He's saying that solitary confinement is important for the safety of other inmates and staff at the facility. And, you know, your former boss, the former mayor, Bill de Blasio, did postpone his plans to end solitary confinement because of - I assume it's because of the level of violence that remained at Rikers, even though there were vastly fewer people in solitary. So what about that? I mean, is there an argument to be made that this isolation, however regrettable, can be necessary for the safety of others there?

SCHIRALDI: If you just throw open the doors of solitary to people who have committed violent acts - and, you know, that's why they're in solitary - then it's dangerous. And I think that is tragically part of the history of what happened in Rikers Island, that as it was going away, we weren't really replacing it with anything.

When I ran juvenile justice in Washington, D.C., we created a robust approach to programming young people, to helping them when they had mental health problems, when they were depressed, when they were acting out, so that they were so productively occupied and there so many incentives to behave well, by the time we closed solitary, staff didn't object because they had all these other tools.

In Rikers Island and the city's Department of Correction, much of those changes were mandated from the outside, and many people inside the department resisted them, particularly the labor union. The Correctional Officers' Benevolent Association really resisted them because they falsely equated solitary with safety. And really what they should have been doing is equating programming with safety. When you do that, when people are very productively occupied, the number of people that act out goes way, way down. And then you can briefly put them in solitary. The Mandela rules that the U.N. emphasizes and the HALT Act that the state passed in New York say 15 days so that people don't literally lose their minds in solitary for months and months at a time.

MARTIN: Many people will remember the case of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he spent three years at Rikers, two of them in solitary confinement, for allegedly stealing a backpack that he says he didn't steal. The case never went to trial. You know, a lot of terrible things happened to him at Rikers. But he took his own life after being released. And we saw that some of these issues persist, that 16 people have reportedly died in custody last year at Rikers, including at least five suicides. So the question I think is that - is solitary confinement inherently inhumane, or is there a bigger issue? Is there something sort of overall about that institution apart from solitary that is just broken?

SCHIRALDI: Both of those things are true. It's not an either or. Solitary confinement is inherently inhumane, and Rikers has multiple decades-long history of deplorable conditions and a culture of violence. So it's a thorny, thorny problem to fix. I was only there seven months, and I didn't even scratch the surface during that time period. We need a real serious, methodical approach to eliminating solitary confinement. But solitary confinement is just one part of a myriad of problems that face Rikers Island that have turned it into one of the most notorious jails in the country.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, if you were to offer advice to the new mayor - I mean, he's free to take it or not - what would you say to him about this?

SCHIRALDI: Rely much more on incentives and programs to limit the use of solitary. And really don't just knee-jerk react to some of the legitimate complaints by staff about dangerous conditions. You can believe that those conditions are dangerous without overreacting and putting people back into what staff calls the hole.

MARTIN: That was Vincent Schiraldi. He is a former commissioner. He just, in fact, concluded his service as commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. He's now a senior research scientist at the Columbia Justice Lab. Vincent Schiraldi, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your expertise.

SCHIRALDI: Thanks again for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.