In January 2015, the Board of Corrections governing New York City jails announced changes to rules for the country’s second largest jail system. The changes were spurred by at least three sources: mandated prison reform; the August 2014 report by federal prosecutors highly critical of brutal treatment and solitary confinement endured by teenaged inmates at Rikers Island; some corrections officials; claim that a lopsided amount of jail violence is caused by a small number of inmates who needed to be isolated before reforms can be successful.
First, the new rules call for a new type of solitary confinement: “enhanced supervision housing” units costing $14.8 million and allowing wardens to lock up to 250 violent inmates in their cells for as much as 17 hours per day, severely restrict their movements, limit their access to the law library; limit their contact visits, and monitor their mail; solitary confinement can last for 30 days at most; only inmates who have seriously injured other inmates/staff, engaged in jail gang violence and possess weapons such as small blades will be subject to placement in these units; 16-17 year old inmates cannot be placed in solitary confinement; 18-21 year old inmates can be placed in solitary confinement only if they are accused of violence; and seriously mentally ill inmates cannot be placed in solitary confinement.
Secondly, the new rules also call for separating inmates up to the age of 21 from inmates older than 21, as well as “age-appropriate” activities for the 21-and-under inmates.
A third important addition to the new rules is additional guard training: 40 hours of additional training to help guards recognize mental health disorders curb tense situations.
While the new rules regarding younger inmates and the mentally ill apparently have unanimous support, inmate advocates are critical of the planned “enhanced supervision housing.” Noting that prior attempts at special housing units had degenerated into punitive holding pens, inmate advocates complain that the proposed housing has no plans for therapy, programming and activities to reduce idle time and address the true causes of violence.
Despite criticisms by inmate advocates, the new rules call for all three elements: therapy, programming and activities to reduce idle time and address the true causes of violence. These three measures are to be implemented no later than July 2015.
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