New York City is set to ban most uses of solitary confinement in city jails on Wednesday, setting the stage for a showdown between City Council leaders and Mayor Eric Adams, who opposes the ban and has vowed to veto the measure.
The Council vote was framed by supporters as a pivotal moment in a national push to make jails more humane. But the bill also highlighted a broader discussion about whether solitary confinement is torture or a legitimate form of punishment for detainees who grossly violate codes of conduct.
Officials at the United Nations have called the practice torture, and a large body of research links it to increased risks for worsened mental illness, self-harm and suicide . There are also racial disparities in its use: Black and Latino people are more likely to be put in solitary confinement.
But jail officials in New York and Mr. Adams, a former police captain, say that past abuses of solitary confinement, when detainees were held in isolation for long periods, have ended and that separating violent detainees temporarily is the only way to keep everyone safe.
Mr. Adams re-emphasized his criticism of the ban on Tuesday, saying that sometimes “idealism collides with realism.”
“I don’t think this is thought through, and anyone who has knowledge of a correctional facility would tell you that you can’t leave dangerous people in a general population,” the mayor told Crain’s Business this week.
Solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation, refers to the centuries-old practice of holding a detainee alone in a cell for most of the day. The bill would ban the practice beyond a four-hour “de-escalation” period during an emergency and require that all detainees spend at least 14 hours outside of cells each day.
The bill’s supporters have vowed to override the mayor’s expected veto. The measure has 38 sponsors in the 51-member City Council and support from key allies, including Yusef Salaam, a new council member who will represent Harlem starting in January.
Mr. Salaam was wrongfully convicted as a teenager in the Central Park Five case and has been a forceful critic of solitary confinement. After spending nearly seven years in prison, his experience in solitary has stuck with him, and he believes it was torture.
“You can hear people crying out,” he said in an interview. “You can hear people in pain. You can hear people going through a mental breakdown. It’s one of the most horrific things to experience.”
New York officials are not alone in their efforts. Democrats in Congress introduced a bill this year to ban solitary confinement nationwide. California lawmakers approved a bill last year to limit the practice, but it was vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Officials in the Pittsburgh and Chicago areas have also put restrictions in place.
In New York, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has vowed to fight the bill up until the last minute. Its leaders have drawn attention to persistent violence at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, including 6,500 assaults of guards over the last three years.
The union created a website featuring photos of injured guards and targeted the bill’s lead sponsor, Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, urging New Yorkers to call his office to stop the bill. The ad campaign has also been featured on a truck billboard seen outside City Hall this week, suggesting that the ban would lead to more violence in jails.
Before the vote, a group of conservative council members planned to hold a rally with the correction union on Wednesday to oppose the bill. An officer wrote a piece this week drawing attention to sexual harassment and sexual assaults against female officers.
But their opposition was far outweighed by supporters of the ban, including a key health care union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which announced its backing on Monday, along with dozens of advocacy groups.
“We’re at a critical moment and have the opportunity to make our criminal legal system more just and humane,” said Carlina Rivera, a City Council member from Manhattan and a sponsor of the bill.
On Wednesday, the City Council was also expected to vote on a bill that would require the Police Department to report basic information on police stops. Mr. Adams also opposes that bill and argued on Tuesday that it would waste police resources and require officers to submit paperwork for basic inquiries like helping a lost tourist or asking bystanders about a missing person.
The city’s current rules on punitive segregation put violent detainees in a restrictive housing area where people are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours of the day, though jail officials say they are offered seven hours out of their cells. At a City Council hearing last year, jail leaders said that 117 people were being held in punitive segregation out of roughly 6,000 detainees.
The jail at Rikers Island is at a major crossroads. Federal officials have sought to strip the Adams administration of control over it in response to persistent violence and chaos. Mr. Adams recently named a new head of city jails to work with the federal monitor overseeing the system to avoid a federal takeover.
Over the last decade, several people who were placed in solitary confinement at Rikers have died. In 2019, Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman, had an epileptic seizure and died while in solitary after guards failed to check on her. Kalief Browder, a teenager who was accused of stealing a backpack and was detained there for three years without a trial, including roughly two years in solitary, died by suicide at home in 2015.
His mother, Venida Browder, died of a heart attack a year later, and her family said her son’s death was a factor.
Kalief Browder’s brother, Akeem Browder, said the ban was long overdue.
“They must not let Kalief nor my mother nor any of our loved ones down,” he said. “Our family members did not die in vain.”