Solitary Confinement At Riker's Island Was Just Banned In A Long Overdue Move

On Tuesday, the New York City Board of Correction approved a measure to ban solitary confinement on Riker's Island for those age 21 and under. Exceptions remain for those who have committed serious and violent crimes. Under current practices, inmates can remain in their cells for 23 hours per day, with one hour of solitary outdoor time permitted in a small caged space. This move provides a major marker toward jail reform; Riker's is the second largest system in America.

Though the policy only targets adolescent prisoners in one facility, it could be the first move in efforts to reforming prison systems nationwide as the practice poses serious mental health risks.

According to a report conducted by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, 682 adolescents aged 16-18 were imprisoned in Riker's in 2013. Over 31 percent were held in solitary confinement during that period.

Bryanne Hamill, a member of the Board of Corrections, said to The New York Times:

The evidence showed that solitary confinement will not improve their future behavior, but will reliably convert anger and frustration today into rage and violence tomorrow.

For the well-being of the individual and society post-release, inmates need to be treated constructively, which does not appear to include solitary cells.

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According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, continued solitary jailing practices hurts inmates. From its fact sheet:

For people with serious mental illnesses, solitary confinement is akin to torture and worsens symptoms, in particular, “anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, and psychosis."

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Criticism of the facility has mounted of late, pushing the need to reform — particularly in light of Bharara's report, which prompted federal prosecutors to sue Riker's over use of solitary as punishment and its civil rights violations against adolescent inmates. In July, The New York Times conducted an investigation on the serious injuries inflicted by guards on young inmates. One of the most disturbing series of abuses including the beatings of five prisoners following suicide attempts.

In a public statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio affirmed his commitment to improving prison facilities:

For years, New York City has locked people up without the provision of adequate programs and treatment to change their thinking and their behavior. We are pursuing evidence-based practices that will lead to a safer and more humane system.

With de Blasio on board, and willing to take action, as he pushed to end solitary confinement of 16-17 year olds in December — hope remains for passing additional measures to reduce solidary confinement for those over the age of 21.

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The reform on Riker's Island offers the opportunity for a national conversation on the serious problems solitary confinement creates during and after incarceration. Mental health has often been set aside in favor of these imprisonment practices, neglecting to address the permanent damage it can create. Prison reform needs to include measures that will best rehabilitate inmates to society, rather than fuel the cycle of re-entering the corrections system.

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