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City Council may force Rikers Island to track solitary confinement

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer walks down a hallway of the jail, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

Solitary confinement in the city's jails would be tracked in 42 categories under legislation being voted on Thursday at the City Council, so policy-makers can decide "whether changes to the system are needed," says the lawmaker who oversees municipal incarceration.

Under a bill unanimously approved Wednesday by Councilwoman Liz Crowley's Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee, the Correction Department would track and disclose much about the punishment, including its frequency, duration, guards' use of force, inmates' suicide attempts, how often they're allowed to shower and more. The information would be reported quarterly and posted on a government website.

The committee also greenlighted a resolution demanding city jailers stop returning inmates, upon a new stay for a fresh arrest, to serve solitary for infractions incurred during prior stints in lockup. In jailhouse parlance, the punishment is called "bing time" in the "box."

"I have witnessed a friend experience the mental torture of solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation," Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said, on the verge of tears.

Marti Adams, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office, and Correction Department spokesman Robin Campbell separately said both support the statistics bill. Adams would say only that the mayor is "reviewing" the resolution, and Campbell did not answer requests for comment about it.

More than half of inmates are mentally ill; the jails often deal with psychotic outbursts by throwing the inmates into solitary confinement -- a practice experts say exacerbates their illnesses.

Rikers Island -- the world's largest penal colony -- has been buffeted by a torrent of brutality revelations: a mentally ill Marine veteran left to bake to death in a mental-health watch unit, guard-on-inmate beatings exacted in retribution for verbal taunts, overuse of solitary confinement to punish youths.

A probe released this month by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers "a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort."

City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said Wednesday that there had been an increase of 37 percent in the number of personal-injury claims filed this year over last year against the Correction Department -- and a 114 percent increase since 2009.

Crowley (D-Glendale) said knowing figures would help lawmakers better understand how the city is using solitary confinement.

Ex-con Dakem Roberts, who testified at Crowley's hearing Wednesday and said he did decades for second-degree murder he claims he didn't commit, warned about locking an inmate in solitary for too long: "You can't blame the monster. You have to blame the Frankenstein doctor."

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